Banks will benefit from the Postal Service's growing involvement in electronic commerce, says Robert A. F. Reisner, its vice president of strategic planning.

Rather than enter the crowded race to provide secure Internet transactions, the Postal Service plans to focus on ways to facilitate them, Mr. Reisner says.

Its first Internet service will be an electronic postmark for documenting "an official stream of communications," Mr. Reisner said.

The electronic postmark - a date and time stamp - is just the beginning. Many other electronic commerce and E- mail services are being considered, including return receipts, certified mail, and verification of sender and recipient.

The Postal Service has been "working with a number of banks to help define what is useful and what is needed in the marketplace," Mr. Reisner said.

"There is a lot of value in what the post office is looking to offer," said a bank representative who is familiar with the federal corporation's plans. With "the Internet E-mail capability and a direct payment application like an automated clearing house credit or funds transfer credit, it could really do a lot to expedite the use of electronic commerce."

The bank official's initial reaction, however, was less than enthusiastic. And the Postal Service acknowledges that it has received more than a few quizzical looks at recent trade shows.

Two computer software companies, Cylink Corp. of Sunnyvale, Calif., and Aegis Star Corp. of Palo Alto, Calif., are contributing technological expertise for the electronic offerings.

Cylink, a specialist in data security techniques, is developing the postmarking system as well as a certificate authority for authenticating E-mail and documents transmitted over the Internet and other networks.

Aegis Star, an electronic document archiving firm, is acting as "a service provider to help us bring the postmark to test," said John L. Cook, a program director with the Postal Service.

Aegis Star will send the postmarked document to its recipient. When the message is delivered, the recipient would use the Postal Service Mail Reader software, developed by Aegis Star, to read and authenticate the document.

The postmarking process could take five to eight minutes, Mr. Cook said. "Most of that is network time. Postmarking takes a second."

During the testing phase of the postmark product, the cost will be 22 cents for a file roughly the same size as a first class letter. However, the Postal Service is also considering other pricing structures, including a time-based method similar to telephone billing.

The Postal Service's relationship with companies such as Cylink and Aegis Star illustrate its intention to leverage its reputation, not to design new technology. "Our purpose is not to compete with software firms, but instead to use their services," Mr. Reisner said.

The Postal Service wants to support electronic commerce in other ways. Working with the catalogue industry, it could develop kiosks where consumers can place orders with merchants.

Mr. Reisner said he assumes these transactions would be processed by banks. However, "it's going to be the catalogue industry that makes those decisions, not us," he added.

The Postal Service also sees a niche for itself in the realm of smart cards.

"As we see commerce changing and people using stored-value cards and smart cards, the Postal Service can be a convenient retail distribution system through which people could restore value to their cards," Mr. Reisner said.

These moves toward electronic services do not mean the Postal Service sees an end to its more traditional paper-moving functions.

"The vision of an all-electronic society in which all paper disappears is really not a realistic view of where the market will be for the next 10 years," Mr. Reisner said.

At least for the next decade, he said, the market will remain a hybrid - some customers will want to work on paper, others will want to work electronically.

"You can imagine someone issuing a loan where the final loan documents were in paper, but a lot of the discussion about the loan was done through E-mail," Mr. Reisner said.

"All of that needs to be part of the official record, and that's the kind of problem we're trying to solve."

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