TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Storm in a post box

Australia Post and Digital Post Australia are locked in a legal war over their proposed digital mail services but the jury is still out on whether Australian consumers want digital mail in the first place.

Technology Spectator

Over the past couple of months the federal court has seen Optus conquer both Telstra and the AFL during the TV Now saga, and Apple brought to its knees over its misleading 4G advertising.

But the latest technology case the court is hearing is set to trump both of these landmark rulings.

It’s Australia Post v Digital Post Australia in an all-out legal war... over a company name.

Confused? Underwhelmed? Annoyed?

Well that's exactly how the federal court may feel about this latest legal complication involving the next innovation in message delivery: digital mail.

Australia Post is suing DPA saying  DPA is cashing in on its iconic brand name. Yet DPA rebuts their accusations saying it established the name well before Australia Post’s impromptu move into the realm of digital mail.  

Both sides appear deadly serious about leveraging the title "Digital Post Australia” to help promote their respective online mailbox services.

But the most confounding aspect of this entire trial is that while they are fighting, the jury is still out as to whether digital post will even take off in Australia.

Digital Post Australia’s testimony

What DPA is providing is a cloud based digital storage box that is linked to your address.

Questions have been raised as to how successful the service will be as it shows stark similarities to email and it may be an uphill battle to convince the public otherwise.

"It has nothing to do with email,” DPA chairman David Hynes says. 

"You have to demo it to understand it.”

The major difference between email and a digital post-box is that it serves as a direct, infallible link, between mail aggregators and the public.

Mail aggregators are the organisations that send bills and promotional mail on behalf of other larger companies.

Aggregators are drooling at the idea, as it will save them both time and money incurred from posting bills in the mail. 

Australia is one of the few countries where almost all companies outsource their billing and communication to mail aggregators, making it a ripe market for a digital mailbox service.

Australia Post’s objection

But, the DPA wasn’t the only group with the digital post market on its mind. One week after DPA’s announcement, Australia Post chimed in saying it was launching its own digital post service.

It was revealed that Australia Post had been planning such a move since 2005, but was yet to act on it. The company also neglected to mention any plans for the service in 2010, when CEO Ahmed Fahour declared that Australia Post would be adopting a new digital based business strategy.

It wouldn't be a major leap to assume that Australia Post launched their digital mail service prematurely in order to keep up with DPA.

However, Alex Twomey from Australia Post says the company had planned to announce the new service since February.

He says that when the company sent out a media invitation to the launch of its digital post-office in Melbourne it included a phrase saying there would be an announcment on the future of mail in Australia.

Australia Post used this invitation as evidence that they were always planning unveil a digital mail service.

"We’ve been working on it for four years,” Twomey says.

He adds that Australia Post’s recent partnership with American digital mail firm, Pitney Bowes shows that they were always planning to release the system.

"Deals with large American companies like Pitney Bowes don’t just happen overnight.”

He attributed Australia Post’s delay in introducing the service to a lingering concern within the company that Australian’s just wouldn’t adopt it.

"With Digital mail, it’s kind of like the tablet market, it was always a bright idea but it wasn’t really adopted by the public until they started to add features like 3G,” he says.

Regardless, DPA’s product launch had penned Australia Post into a corner and the only card it had left to play was its iconic brand, which the DPA looked to threaten with its similar sounding name.  

And so Australia Post took DPA to federal court over – of all things – its name. It lost its initial appeal to force DPA to change its name and will now go to trial next month. 

The jury on digital mail

Yet the name won’t mean anything if either company cannot prove that digital mail will make an impression on Australian consumers. Digital mail's most poignant flaw is its inability to clearly distinguish itself from regular email.

"I already have a "digital mailbox". It's called email,” says tech commentator Stilgherrian.

"Why on earth would I want yet another information silo to check for so-called "important" mail -- by which they seem to mean bills and bank statements?”

"Important to the sender, maybe, but not to me,” he says.

Stilgherrian adds that increased security to a mail system is not enough of an argument for him to try the service.

"We already have technical standards for encrypted email, digital signatures and receipts, and they're built into almost every halfway-decent email client software,” Stilgherrian says

"We've had them for 20 years, but no-one has ever been terribly interested in using them.”

CoreData research principal Andrew Inwood agrees that any added security features are not going to convince consumers into opening an account.

"They have got a long road to go to prove that they are more secure [mail] provider than Google,” he says.

Inwood says you only have to check the Whirlpool forums online to see how the public are reacting to it.

"People think it’s a joke… there is a line circulating around the forums that goes something along the lines of ‘what will Australia Post re-invent next, the fax machine?”

Despite DPA pioneering the move to digital mail, Australia Post is bearing the brunt of the criticism online.

However, Inwood says that it would be wrong to discount Australia Post just yet.

From his dealings with Australia Post, he understands that the company has more ideas up its sleeve.

"What they have been talking about so far is just a fraction of what they have planned.” 

Alex Twomey from Australia Post says that it has been a tough process to "turn the company from a monopoly into a competitive business”.

"It’s a big ship to turnaround… but the amount of work that is going on back here is breath-taking,” Twomey says.

"We have a lot of plans about moving into e-commerce."

This story was updated with comments for Australia Post after its publication. Australia Post was initially unable to reply to a request for comment before the article went online.

Follow @HarrisonPolites on Twitter.

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