|BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : NOVEMBER 15, 1999 ISSUE|
|TECH BUYING GUIDE -- INTERNET SERVICES
A Cyber-Arsenal for Road Warriors
From wakeup calls to online office space, the Net has it all
It's a road warrior's nightmare. You don't get your hotel wake-up call, and you oversleep. Leah Lim can tell you all about it. On Oct. 4, the consultant for Simul-Task Computing, a Philadelphia systems-integration firm, asked for a morning call at a Hilton hotel near Dulles International Airport, outside of Washington. It was supposed to come at 7 a.m., but she staggered out of bed on her own a half hour later and was late for a meeting. The next day she didn't depend on the hotel operator. Instead, she logged on to the Web and set up an automated wake-up phone call to her room from an Internet company she had heard about called iPing Inc. It worked flawlessly.
Now she's hooked. Not only does the 24-year-old Philadelphian rely on iPing when she's traveling, but she also arranges to get wake-up calls at home. ''I'm immune to my alarm clock,'' she explains. When she's on the road, Lim even calls on the service to remind her roommate to feed the dog at 6 p.m.
Luckily for Lim and others like her, the Web has given rise to a virtual Yellow Pages of new services designed to save time and money and avoid hassles for frantically busy business folk. Until now, people had to pay $30 to $200 for software packages such as e-mail, address books, calendars, and word processors. Often they could pull up those programs only on the computer at the office. Now much of the stuff is free--the companies make money instead selling advertising--and it's available from any computer anywhere via the Net. Better yet, the Web makes possible dozens of handy services that didn't exist before--such as iPing. These aren't once-a-day check-ins, either. They can become as integral to your work life as the receptionist, the FedEx guy, or a taxi.
What's an e-day look like for the classic road warrior? Say you're a flour salesman. Let's start right after your morning wake-up ping.
7:30 a.m. You're in a hotel, and you want to check your e-mail to see if a 10 a.m. meeting at Fargo Pretzel Inc. is still on. You fire up your notebook computer and dial up the Web to get to your free mail. HotMail kicked off this craze by allowing people to get free e-mail from any computer via the Web. Now every major Web site has it--from Lycos to Yahoo! You're a Yahoo! kind of guy, so that's your first Web stop of the day. There's the message: Meeting confirmed.
8:30 a.m. You've got time before the sit-down to put a bit of spit and polish on your presentation. You type in the Web-site address for Visto.com, log on, and dip into a file folder where you've stored a WordPerfect document containing a price and terms sheet for Fargo. It takes only a few seconds to download the file to your notebook, and just a couple of minutes to check the numbers.
Visto.com is a great discovery for a road warrior. It's a virtual office on the Web where you can stash the info you need wherever you go. The site includes calendar, address book, document-sharing, photo albums, message boards, and e-mail. It's all integrated. If you're in the photography section and want to send somebody a photo, you simply click on a button, and an e-mail form appears. Pull an address from the Visto address book, press a button, and off it goes.
It's important for you to keep info you've got on the Web synchronized with your office PC and your notebook. Luckily, Visto.com and other similar sites like HotOffice.com have forged such links. They come in handy when a PC fails, which is what happened to Colin S. Brady, a managing director at TMP Worldwide Executive Search in Atlanta. Both his home computer and his portable broke within a week of each other in July. Fortunately, he had programmed his Visto account to harmonize his key information automatically every morning at 1:52 a.m. Result: It was safe on his office computer when the other PCs went haywire.
These days, virtual offices are available all over the Web. Portal giants--such as America Online, Yahoo!, and Microsoft's MSN--let visitors keep address books, organize their schedules, and share information with others. Yahoo!, for instance, introduced Yahoo! Briefcase in August. It allows people to transfer documents and photos to a central computer where colleagues or friends can view them.
9:30 a.m. Before your visit to Fargo Pretzel, you want to check up on one of the people you'll be meeting there. Two months ago, when you met, he was just a midlevel purchasing manager. But your confirmation e-mail said he'd be running today's meeting. Has he come up in the world? You check in your Visto.com address book and see that the client clued you in to a nifty Web site that keeps his contact information up-to-date. Sure enough, when you go to the site and type in a password he gave you, it turns out that he's now the vice-president for purchasing. Better butter him up when you greet him.
Several sites offer this kind of service. Zcentral.com and eCode.com, for instance, give each member a code number they can include on their business card and pass out to people they meet. When those people later key in the code on the Web sites, they see the member's most recent title, phone number, and address--and can even track the person down later if he or she moves on to another job or another city. If somebody wants more information about the Zcentral member--a home phone number, perhaps--they can request that on the Web site, too. An e-mail goes out to the member, who can say yea or nay.
The more people who use this kind of central repository, the more powerful it is. Dr. Alexander A. Tabibi, a fellow in oncology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, has persuaded about 30 friends and co-workers to sign up for Zcentral. One key convert was his brother, Carlo, with whom he operates a commercial real estate firm, Westminster Properties. When Carlo wants Alex to review a rental contract, he posts it on the Zcentral Web site. Alex checks in several times a day from whatever computer happens to be nearby. ''I juggle the lives of being a student, a doctor, and real estate,'' says Tabibi. ''Without being in one place, I can be in control of my life.''
Noon. You've got just one life--but you seem to be spending it in airports. And that's where you go for the flight back to the office after the Fargo Pretzel meeting. Things went well. The pretzel company wants your firm to pitch the flour business at all of its North American plants. It's decentralized, so it wants your regional salespeople to handle the deals, and it wants talks to begin tomorrow. Yikes! Got to move at Net speed.
You commandeer a Web-access kiosk at the airport to set up a quick conference call with your sales colleagues around the country. Visto.com has integrated conference calls into its address book. You click on the names of people you want to participate, select a time, e-mail the information to AT&T, and the phone company initiates the calls. Cost: 15 cents per minute--far less than your boss would pay for a normal conference call. It happens that most of your sales colleagues are in the office today, so the conference call goes without a hitch.
1 p.m. After you turn off your cell phone, you reflect for a few minutes on what a top-notch employee you are. Which reminds you that you've got a performance review coming up. Is it tomorrow? Better find out. You're signed up for a Zcentral service that lets members call in to directory assistance, speak their so-called Zkey number and password to an automated assistant, and get read-back information from their address book or calendar. You check your calendar. Whew! That meeting with the boss isn't until next week.
5 p.m. You're back in the office--the first time you've been there in six days. It's time to get back in touch, so you boot up the old desktop computer and open up your Yodlee.com Web page. This is where people can keep track of every aspect of their Web life. In one spot, you can see summaries of your electronic banking accounts, your e-mail, your investments, your last purchase at Amazon.com Inc., and your credit-card balances. You can also check up on your business travel arrangements. Erik G. Straser, an associate at the venture-capital firm Mohr, Davidow Ventures in Menlo Park, Calif., says Yodlee.com is a huge time-saver. He doesn't have to repeatedly log on to a dozen Web sites each day. ''This does surrogate Web surfing on your behalf,'' he says.
Your life seems to be in order. You've got $2,501 in the checking account. And Amazon.com shipped the copy of Endurance you bought for Dad. But wait a minute. You notice that your company credit card is just about out of cash, and you've got to leave on yet another business trip tomorrow. You send off a quick e-mail to the boss, asking her to transfer $1,000 into your account.
This is the latest wrinkle in managing expenses--Web funding. A company gets special credit cards for employees, and the boss can use the Web site to adjust credit limits for each of them on an hour-by-hour basis. The pioneer in this kind of service, PocketCard.com, charges businesses a $20 annual fee per Visa card, plus 25 cents per transaction. Harold Warden, president of Lee's Cash & Go, a check-cashing company in Indianapolis, got a PocketCard for each of his four offices. Now he doesn't have to keep petty cash. He gets up-to-the-minute reports on when the cards are used and knows exactly how his 13 employees are spending the money.
6 p.m. The phone rings. It's an automated call from iPing that you set up a week ago to remind you that you have to organize a training seminar for next Friday. The sales force is learning how to use Palm handhelds. You go to your browser bookmarks menu and click on seeUthere.com. The site is all about making it easy to arrange meetings, seminars, training sessions, parties, and the like. By filling out simple forms, you can send invitations to dozens or hundreds of people via e-mail, fax, or regular mail. RSVPs are tallied automatically, making it easy to send out reminders to people who are slow to respond. You quickly send out invites to a half-dozen people who are supposed to participate in the Palm seminar.
FAST RELIEF. Such event-planning services are especially handy for busy people who are involved in civic organizations. Robert P. Lee, CEO of Inxight Software Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif., plugs in at least twice a month to arrange meetings for the Asian-American Manufacturers Assn., of which he is president. The seeUthere.com site can even process online ticket sales for him. The basic service is free, but seeUthere.com makes money by handling ticket sales, and it charges for mail invitations. Lee's using the site now to send pleas for donations for Taiwan earthquake relief to the group's 1,000 members. ''We're a volunteer organization,'' Lee says, ''and this lightens the workload on people.''
And this is just the start. Two of the newest e-services, Desktop.com and MyInternetDesktop.com, are offering technology hooks into their Web sites for other software developers. That makes it easy for the others to create their own e-services--to be listed on these sites. If the idea catches on, there will soon be hundreds of new electronic helpers for road warriors like Simul-Task's Lim and our flour salesman to pick from. So long, old-fashioned software.
By STEVE HAMM
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