Saturday, 5 December 2015

The demise of SmartStamp

We make a lot of use of SmartStamp, thousands of pounds a year, as we use it for sending letters and parcels (routers, firebricks, etc) to customers every day.

It was quite a good system. When it started we reverse engineered the back end and integrated in to our systems. In a lot of ways this was superior to using any sort of franking machine:-
  • Address label or envelope printed in one go with postage included, instead of separately franking every item
  • Postage selected from simple pull down of types of postage instead of typing the amount in to a franking machine which is easy to get wrong
  • Some of our systems know the postage and link straight to that, so address and stamp is one button without thinking
  • All postage properly logged to the user requesting it, and to the customer account to which it relates - makes misuse near impossible
  • We can update the franking marks as we wish, e.g. Christmas, etc.
Basically the only disadvantage is that franking is usually a few pence cheaper, but the ongoing costs reduce that, and mostly we charge customers at cost for postage, so making no real difference.

However, sadly, for no apparent reason, they are stopping SmartStamp at the end of the year. So what next? Well, the good news is that Royal Mail have a postage API for parcels. This actually looks mostly sensible, but I am only just starting to look at this now - if I am crying in a corner later this week, you'll know why.

It does not look like this covers simple letters, so we may have to come up with a solution to that - I suspect just pre-paid C5 envelopes for now.

Anyway, for parcels, we'll need to do the labels, and they recommend this 4" wide thermal label printer. I was not that keen on yet another printer, but actually I think it may be a lot easier than putting labels through the big printer anyway, and Royal Mail supply the media for free (well, because you are spending on postage)! It is also nice and quick - just over a second to print a label.

I am going to integrate this API in to our linux based systems. I will need to print to the label printer from that system, which means ideally I want a printer that is Ethernet/IP networked and supports postscript. The label printer they supply is USB (or parallel or serial!), not Ethernet... Hmmm

Simple - try it on linux and see. Well, I am impressed. CUPS found it, recognised it, and only one option needed a couple of trial and error to get right. It just works from linux. So I set up a Raspberry Pi, installed CUPS, set up the printer and shared it, and then set up promote printing from the system that needs to print labels, and bloody hell it just works! As far as the system is concerned it has a networked postscript printer.


So, next step is testing the API and integrating with out systems - what could go wrong? I'll keep you "posted".

18 comments:

  1. Smartstamp's demise is being looked upon with a sense of doom at work - currently it's hooked into our contracts system (probably in much the same way you did it) so it's one button to send letters to people.

    The current planned replacement is to copy and paste into the RM website manually, which won't scale for long.

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  2. The "no apparent" reason is in fact because Royal Mail say the systems that run the service are outdated and it wasn't cost effective/feasible to upgrade/replace them.

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    1. They work - why touch them?

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    2. That's why banks still have large mainframes running their central systems. That's why the BACS system still consists of plain text files being transferred around by 56k modems.

      Eventually the cost to maintain the old system is greater than the cost to develop a new system

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  3. You can get ethernet versions of those Zebra printers - we use LP2844's with a JetDirect 170x due to cost though. All ours are parallel units.

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    1. Yep, you can get them with Ethernet - and the ones we use for parcel labels with RM and Parcelforce etc are.

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    2. We just got what they recommended, but it works nicely like this :-)

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    3. I think they call it ZebraNet. Works quite well from my experience, we have one with it.

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  4. You know, there are actually APIs for sending letters. The service prints and ships it for a fee. Since they do a lot of volume, supposedly they can pass on their discounted rates. Here's a list of services I have lying around: http://pastebin.com/FgbNC3tf

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    1. I use pc2paper for NBA's and SAR's - far easier than doing it by hand.

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  5. For letters, it would involve using a third party for printing and posting etc, but there are providers that will print out, envelope and post letters. If you want a name of one (don't believe in spamming their details) then let me know and I'll show you who we use.

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  6. The Windows app for Smartstamp came with a truly nasty elevation of privilege hole associated with it. I obviously can't go into details but think thrice _before you install the app on a machine that administrators ever log on to_. Might be an idea to run it only in a VM. The app can be mended by hand by a sufficiently clued-up admin. So Windows users, be extremely careful.

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  7. When one of the options to replace SmartStamp is "Sheets or rolls of stamps from our online shop", I can't help but be a little surprised. Perhaps bring back the Pony Express? This is a clear step backward whilst neither of the remaining online options (Click and Drop / Online Postage) are steps forward. They cannot do what Smart Stamp did as quickly and as neatly. I didn't know about the security issues detailed above but such problems can surely be patched. I suspect that the real reason for dropping Smart Stamp is that it was too good and too economical and took business away from Franking machine companies and post offices. I for one will miss it very much.

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  8. I just used Smartstamp today 6 Jan 16. its still working so guess RM are still authenticating indicas and i topped up my account to. i'm hanging on to it till someone shuts me down. i love smartstamp

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  9. I too am dismayed at the demise of SmartStamp. I run a not-for-profit membership organisation that has need of posting occasional bulk mail both within the UK and internationally. In the good old days to the end of last year, we could bulk print stamps on sheets of labels, taking into account the various destinations. That has, of course, ceased. We attempted to use Online Postage but this is a terrible system for anyone that needs more than a single stamp at a time. To print 50 stamps would take, I estimate, well in excess of two hours. And to boot, key information on the address label such as job title and company name would be missing.
    I have written to Moya Greene and now have had a reply from the 'Executive Response Team', purporting to be from her (her signature is printed) saying that they recognise the frustration and that the sales team will be in touch to discuss an alternative solution.
    As many people have said on this very useful blog, Royal Mail has not thought this through and has withdrawn a product that many people made use of and replaced it with something completely unsuitable for anyone sending more than one item of mail a day. We'll see what they say, and I'll report back. In the meantime, perhaps this is a story for 'Watchdog'.

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  10. it's the worst thing that Royal Mail have ever done, stopping smartstamp.

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  11. Agreed, Unknown. Following many, many weeks of waiting after Moya Greene's department said that RM Sales would contact us to find a replacement solution, we're now on an On Business Account using PPIs. The setting up involved departments in three separate locations (Plymouth being one) and can best be described as shambolic.
    However, we are now able to send physical mail again. It is far more complicated than SmartStamp and involves us sorting and bagging the mail, as well as taking it to the Post Office (unless we opt for collections at £800+ per year which is not worthwhile since we don't post every day).
    But it is far better than the crazily over-complex and inefficient online postage system. And we can actually include all the address lines we want - Online Postage conveniently does not allow you to output job title and company name, even if you input those data.
    It's impossible to communicate directly with people in authority to explain just how dire the entire business system is in Royal Mail. Placing so many barriers in the way of people who want to send more than a handful of letters at any one time - involving different sizes and weights - is sheer madness when physical mail is under so much threat from e-mail and courier services.
    I have come to the conclusion that Royal Mail is simply disinterested in providing a coherent, effective, cost-efficient solution to SMEs across the country. If e-commerce providers such as Amazon were run like this, they would not be the huge successes that they are today. Customers would have found other solutions and taken their business elsewhere.

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  12. Another disappointed customer who has used Smartstamp for years. It really was an amazing service from Royal Mail and their lack of foresight and customer care has annoyed this small business. We will unfortunately revert to Stamps purchased online and see how things go. Maybe they will rethink their business model and reintroduce this system - well not likely.! Hopefully the Managing Director of Royal Mail gets to see these endless comments over the past few months or is he happy to sit in his ivory tower getting paid handsomely for upsetting his customers.

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