From a cloud to the cloud: How ash kills airmail

The ash cloud over Europe will kill airmail and with it paper documents around the world. It will hasten the decline and death of postal delivery that I foresaw here. It will have an equally profound and permanent impact on other sectors of the economy and society. But let’s just look at the post office.

Right now, it is impossible to get a document to or around Europe with speed. People can’t fly. Mail can’t fly. Even when the air clears, there’ll be diminished faith in the ability of the post office — not to mention FedEx, DHL, and UPS — to make speedy delivery of documents. Any company or agency with an ounce of strategic sense is creating a plan now to convert to digital. It is speedier (instant!) and more certain (guaranteed) and cheaper (free) and even earns green points (no dead trees, no fuel, no fumes). What’s not to love?

On top of that, Google just announced Cloud Print, which will enable Sally in Chicago to print directly to Sarah in London’s printer. This does us the favor of getting rid of the hassle of printer drivers (once compatible printers are built). As Leo Laporte realized on the latest This Week in Google, it also portends the end of that other great hassle: the fax machine (and with it, all tired metaphors about the value of fax networks). With Google Docs and Google Print, who needs the post office or the FedEx bill or the fax machine? We’ll have Iceland to thank for this.

Of course, this shift necessitates other changes. Lawyers will have to accept electronic documents and signatures, for example. Big notebooks of meeting materials will be sent via Google Docs. Designs will be seen on screen if you want to see them soon. I don’t know how much financial documents like checks are still transported rather than scanned but it’s now possible to deposit a check with a picture and then tear it up. What other paper dependencies can fall by the wayside? If they can, they will. Digital=speed. Atoms=slow.

You might ask why the disruption in Europe dictates this change in companies elsewhere. That’s because too many companies are international and once Acme Inc. makes the change for the Munich office, it will need to do likewise for Minneapolis. The long-predicted, never-seen paperless office still doesn’t quite arrive, but we will have offices with less paper.

Photo: JonTandy

So what does this do to the post office? In Europe, it’s going to be deadly expensive. The first-class mail that supports postal services around the world will be bound to shrink. Prices will then have to rise, forcing demand to shrink more.

Meanwhile, without air freight — or with the risk of it disappearing for days, weeks, months, even more — more goods will have to be moved by train and truck, raising demand there and thus raising prices of ground transport for the mail.

What to do about it? As I suggested in my post-postal post, we should imagine a nation in which everyone is connected to the broadband net with the devices necessary to use it: a computer (or lite equivalent). Indeed, the U.K. should have put all its effort into that quest rather than into its horrid Digital Economy bill.

Broadband for all would not only smooth the post-ash transition for businesses and citizens, it would open up so many more opportunities in entrepreneurship, innovation, and education. But that requires our institutions to think an inch past their noses.

Once first-class mail fails in one country and continent, it will domino in other nations because — as we’ve learned from patently obvious AP stories — we’re all interconnected now. So it won’t matter that we aren’t under the ash cloud in the U.S. Its impact will spread here.

When first-class mail declines, the horrendous losses at our U.S. postal service will accelerate, forcing decisions that the government — as is its habit — would like to put off for a few years. There will be less first-class profit to subsidize the delivery of media (another nail in the coffin of magazines) and advertising (another reason to jump to digital) and parcels (opening up more opportunities for private competitors).

The delivery industry could be disrupted as profoundly but much more quickly than media. I’d sell stock in FedEx. If I thought the postal service would collapse, I’d buy it in UPS. I’m not sure about Amazon. You might think that Cisco would be a big winner but I’ll bet on Skype and hope it goes public soon. Of course, short every airline. That sound you hear is dominos falling.

The cloud spreads.

One can make similar predictions about other industries.
* Tourism: Too obvious. I was planning to take my family to Europe this summer. Holding off on booking those tickets.
* Conventions: Also obvious. I’ve been talking to many events lately via Skype. We’ll see more of that.
* Airlines: Screwed even more than they are now.
* Hotels: Itchy.
* Food: Perishable food will be risky to ship to Europe. The local food movement will rejoice. Poor Chilean strawberry farmers not so much. People like me who loathe winter veggies will have to suck it up. Restaurant and grocery prices will rise.
* Oil: Demand will decline. I leave it to others to tell me the geopolitical impact and opportunity.
* Education. Will international student enrollment suffer?
* Defense. The shutdown of Europe’s airspace is already affecting America’s troops in Afghanistan. Want to launch a coup? Pretty good time.
* Globalization. Will companies be less willing to buy companies halfway around the world if they risk not getting there to manage them?

This is all rank speculation, of course. The cloud could disappear this week and be forgotten, a tale for T-shirts (damn, I wish I’d bought mine). But the next time it comes — and this scientist argues with thinner, lighter ice layers, we stand a chance of seeing more eruptions — then there’ll be no excuse for not planning for the worst.

The truth is, this future is coming anyway and, like news and media, every industry and institution should be remaking themselves for it already. The unpronounceable volcano didn’t bring it. The internet did. The ash merely accelerated some the change we’re already seeing; it gives us another reason to go digital and that digital transformation is what’s disrupting the world.

That’s how a cloud will force us into the cloud.

  • It seems that the volcanic cloud reminds us of all the things that we can’t yet do with the digital cloud. After all, all the things you cite about the digital cloud have been available for some time, yet digital only takes us so far, and that won’t change because it can’t change.

  • When I heard you at the re:publica 10 conference in Berlin these days, you seemed like an optimistic person. Cannot see anything of that in this post…

    To make it short: I don’t think the effects will be this strong; economic pressure will make that planes are back to the air quite soon.

  • Till Eulenspiegel

    more certain (guaranteed)

    “Guaranteed” is a bit of an overstatement. Email does go missing, mostly thanks to overzealous spam filters. And there are relatively few “cloud” services that are doing things truly right, including regular backups and redundant everything. Incidents like the Sidekick data loss will be repeated.

    raising demand there and thus raising prices of ground transport for the mail

    Short term, maybe. But I’m not aware of any infrastructure crisis in Europe where the roads and rails are nearly clogged. Meeting demand should simply mean adding more trucks and trains. The “supply” is not limited.

    I’m not sure about Amazon.

    In Europe? No change. You’re perhaps thinking too much along American lines, where air transport is required for delivery throughout a giant, sparsely-populated landmass within a reasonable time. If a package is shipped within Germany, it almost always arrives at its destination within 1-2 days. No paying extra for two-day shipping, no airplanes involved. Maybe a day or so longer for shipping from France or Italy to Germany.

    The local food movement will rejoice.

    Absolutely. But again, a substantial majority of perishable food is already local in the national sense, and much of the rest is local to Europe. I’m trying to think of any produce I buy besides bananas that aren’t grown in Europe. Not much.

  • Juan

    I am looking forward for the same change here as well in US; As the USPS people act like a goverment entity with all the entitlements without the sense of urgency to meet the expetactions of its customers (us – the taxpayers).
    They (themselves) have let UPS & FedEx prospered as they did not care about their customers, about innovating to meet what the market needed.
    Recently there have been some lay offs but that is nothing compared with what is coming with the cloud.
    I get sick when I have to go to the post office the environment is like a funeral, no energy, full of squared-faces employees waiting to clock out to go home, as they feel they have a job security for life. We will see if that is to happen as the less I visit the post-office the closest we get to the disruptive change.

  • alex

    Right, so how will I be receiving books from Amazon and the Book Depository? My new mobile phone cover? My new digital camera? All purchased from overseas… Hmmm, what about the clothes and other gifts that friends posted from overseas when my kids were born? Maybe the cloud will drop these things off.

  • josh

    Got an ash cloud causing disruption? Google’s got an app for that!

    Really, does every post here have to be a tortured attempt to plug Google and present it as the answer to the world’s ills, even an enthusiastic volcano?

    We get it Jeff, you’re a Google fanboi.

    Let’s move on, shall we?

    • You’re free to move on, too.

      • josh

        Great response, Jeff, I really enjoy the intellectual rigour you bring to things. Although, I enjoy your childish petulance and inability to take criticism even more.

        It’s increasingly clear your thinking follows the lines of: is this development good for Google? If yes, then it’s good; if not, it’s bad.

        That’s fair enough, your career depends on Google’s continued survival; but it hardly makes you a critical thinker – or a credible one.

        • Yes, it’s my job to sit here and take your insults and defamation and grin about it. What’s the news that I think Google is a smart company? Hell, I wrote a book about it. No big shocking discovery there, mate. So we disagree. But you say nothing of substance. You only insult. Worthless.

  • Your ability to see through the ash cloud to its consequences is amazing, stimulating and entertaining, Jeff. I love how you stir thngs up! Now the eruptive forces of the earth join the disruptive forces of digital technology to create the ultimate challenge of “edisruption” or is it “diseruption” for the Postal Service! You do make us think, better yet imagine! Keep stirring.

  • There is one error in this argument. Most mail goes by truck and most printed items are printed within an overnight drive of the recipient . What it does do is eliminates one more reason for the express shipment of documents


    • That’s precisely what I’m saying. But that most profitable form of mail subsidizes the fixed costs of the entire operation and without it, the costs to other served — those by land — will have to rise; the business becomes even more untenable.

  • I would invest in land in the Canary Islands. It may be a longer trip but the planes will fly. NY may soon stop being the gateway to Europe and be replaced by Miami.

  • Marcotte

    Incidents like this may hasten large companies (and east coast US or European) to move more operations to the cloud, but my experience doing IT for small businesses indicates most are reticent to adopt new ideas. Getting the lawyers on board for digital signatures will be hard too, especially given the security concerns raised by the Chinese hackers in January.

    Unless the ash sticks around for several months, this will all be soon forgotten and we will return to our old ways. Humans have a short memory. (Was there much travel disruption after Mt St Helens?)

  • Michael Murphy


    I too share your view of the eventual demise of the post office. Having worked for a service bureau for the last 16 years, I have seen many changes in the USPS.

    Also, just having read the latest issue of MacWorld on my iPad, I no longer want to receive paper issues via the mail anymore. Hopefully that will happen sooner than later. (and yes, I saw your “reboxing” video. But I love this thing)

    Keep up the great work!

  • If I may criticize without insulting…

    The vast majority of documents already travel electronically. The world is not waiting for Google Docs. I send Word, Excel & PowerPoint documents via e-mail every day, and to be honest, I’d rather the recipient print it than have the ability to print it remotely. All those “go green” initiatives have replaced personal printers with shared, network printers, so printing something remotely runs the risk of non-delivery just like fax machines did back in the 1990’s (oh, you printed it? I haven’t checked the printer in hours – someone must have accidentally taken it…) And if it’s collaboration you’re after, dozens of platforms already exist to help – SharePoint, Discover, FileNet, etc., etc.. Centralized storage and check-in/check-out functionality’s been around a long time.

    Google Docs has some specific advantages (mainly around how it plays with other Google products), but it’s not saving the world from volcanic ash.

    Also – your discussion about electronic documents makes passing mention of electronic signatures & the like, but doesn’t address the big issue in that space – fraud. When digital signatures reach critical mass, hacked digital signatures will do likewise (much like identity theft arrived along with electronic commerce). Not insurmountable, of course, but I have big issues with “speedier (instant!), more certain (guaranteed) and cheaper (free).” Everything’s cheaper if you don’t count the parts that cost time & money.

  • very thought provoking article stirring up a host of emotions…as a business person who makes their living in the print and mail space I cannot ignore your comments…however, before mail disappears as an option, other more secure methods of delivering mail globally must be considered. Why not print and mail in the country of destination? Save the environment, save the post offices and save the printers…after all we saved everyone on wall street and now look at them thrive!
    One more thought…today via the USPS in the mail, delivered to my office was a direct mail piece complete with offer letter, insert and discount from none other than GOOGLE who wants me to advertise my business on their website….imagine that….GOOGLE using the post office to communicate their on-line offering….smart or silly hmmmmmm?

  • Good article and I can see it makes sense.

    I am currently reading your book, “What Would Google Do?” its a great and thought provoking read. I am a solicitor practicing on a Scottish Island and our office has been pushing paper light working for some time now.

    Isn’t it time we had a doom merchant predicting (sensibly) the pitfalls of the web and e mails? Can’t see any myself but then there are bound to be cleverer people than me.

    I think some thought to the downsides could steer us away from mistakes.

    Are there issues we are missing??

  • John

    I like the article and the speculative thinking. I have wondered why traditional mail hasn’t already died.

    A possible reason, IMHO, is related to the fraud comment: posting still remains a practised way, or least that’s the case in the UK, of authenticating people. Resolving this will take more than just market forces. The government will have do something in the legislative space and I think that, given the governments dismal performance to date, ain’t gonna happen any time soon.

  • What the clouds won´t do in the near future, Peak Oil will.
    It is just a matter of time.
    I wouldn´t bet on planes.

    The scenario you proposed is very likely to happen.
    We will be virtually global, but reality chained to our lands.
    May be is not as bad as it looks, there is always a bright side in everything.
    Less meetings more thinking and talking. Ideas do not need planes to travel.

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  • mike

    In the perfect scenario you suggest, what happens when the internet service goes down? Or when the electricity goes off?

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  • None of this matters, my postman hardly ever turns up anyway and as for sending letter, well thing of the past, just use email or pigeon (faster).