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Free and Uneasy
Web giveaways now include a host of office tools. But watch out for the hidden costs

Free! Free! Free! It has become a virtual mantra on the Web--and an alluring one for cash-conscious entrepreneurs. From free voice mail to free Web hosting to free faxes to free online calendars, a parade of new services makes it possible to set up a virtual office without investing a dime.

Just one problem: Sorting the gold from the gravel can be tough. Quality varies widely, and some have intangible costs that can make free programs expensive in the long run. Take fax services, which promise a private phone number and documents delivered via E-mail. Some tack unrelated ads on your documents. And while the service is free to you, the area code may be half a continent away, sticking your clients with big long-distance bills. What's more, the freebies are basic; you may end up paying for premium services that a real business needs--or bear the cost of lost sales when your free (and poorly maintained) Web host goes down.

Even happy customers note drawbacks. John Boyles, a telecommuting equipment engineer in Turlock, Calif., needed to send as well as receive faxes, so he had to pay to upgrade his account with eFax. But overall, it beats lugging a fax machine around. ''You don't look a gift horse in the mouth,'' says Boyles, ''and this one was neighing so loudly I couldn't ignore it.''

Nor should you, says Ryan Brock, a small-business tech analyst for Access Media International: ''Just because something is free doesn't mean it's necessarily shoddy.''

Indeed, you can find some remarkable deals in messaging centers and wannabe intranets. We reviewed nearly 50 services, screening out those that didn't offer professional appearance and execution. That eliminated contenders such as Intellifax, whose ads overwhelmed their faxes, and, whose Web site offered a bare 1 megabyte of space (others offer up to 30MB). Of the rest, none is perfect in every respect, but they do the basic job as advertised. Would we hang the fate of our company on them? No. But as backups or safety valves to help you put off buying equipment, or for use on the road, these services might come in handy.

Want to simplify communications? Earlier this year, several Web companies started offering free voice mail, fax, and E-mail services in one place--your E-mail box. The cutting-edge versions can translate voice into type and vice versa, making it easy to pick up all messages by phone or E-mail. Each relies on different programs, such as Windows Imaging or RealAudio, to open files, so be sure you have what's required. Some assign a toll-free number, while others allow customers to use their existing numbers.
First, you have to take a few minutes to download proprietary software, but you get a generous 15MB to store messages. You also get to keep your own phone number, which, thanks to the software, will accept voice mail and faxes. And you can check E-mail from any computer, not just at OfficeDomain's Web site.
If viruses are a concern, you'll like OneBox's use of inline files rather than potentially virus-bearing attachments. has a Caller ID function that searches your address book to identify and list known callers in your E-mail in box. But you'll have to give up demographic data, and you get only 3MB of space for all of your files. Currently in beta, OneBox only serves Austin, New York/New Jersey, and Northern California.
Telebot Corp. assigns a toll-free phone number for incoming voice messages and faxes, which can be retrieved from your E-mail account without going to Telebot's Web site. Telebot offers a 10MB mailbox that can handle 60 messages an hour, but its fax capabilities are limited to 25 incoming pages a day, while you can send only a single page with each E-mail. Voice is worse: Five messages a day is the limit.
This service packs a lot of punch. You get messaging, a file-sharing calendar service described below, and a toll-free number. It's the only free service that reads E-mail, addresses, appointments, or to-do lists over the phone. On voice mail, you get only 30 free minutes a month before fees kick in.

Want a free company intranet? These come close. You can post an online calendar or address book, which anyone, anywhere can look at with the proper password. It's great for sharing files and to-do lists and allows live chat among co-workers. Weaknesses include lack of a spell-checker (none has one), searches, and other functions you take for granted on an in-house system.
The outstanding feature of Visto Corp.'s system is its capacity to synch with a Palm Pilot or Microsoft Outlook, and show calendars in different formats. It lacks a search or remind function, but events that interest you can be sent automatically to your scheduler. Visto handles photos, file sharing, a to-do list, E-mail, and an address book.
Yahoo! Inc.'s ''clubs'' offer fewer services, a surprise considering its cutting-edge reputation. There's a message board, a calendar, photo album, shared address book, and a useful chat function, but no file sharing or to-do list. That makes it suitable mainly for workers who swap relatively limited amounts of information.
Executives on the run can dial a toll-free number for access to an address book and scheduler, but only 30 minutes are free. On the Net, uReach has an excellent, searchable calendar that sends reminders to a pager or E-mail. uReach also has file sharing, shared bookmarks, and--coming soon--online chat.

By Stacy Higginbotham

This article was originally published in the August 16, 1999 print edition of Business Week's Frontier. To subscribe, please see our subscription policy.



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