Getting That Data Back!

April 22nd, 2014

rhddAFTER WEEKS OF BURNING THE MIDNIGHT OIL, you’re finally wrapping up an important project. While envisioning yourself stretched out on a tropical beach with a Mai Tai in your hand, you click on File/Save, and make a note to call your travel agent in the morning.

A screech jolts you back to reality, followed by an alarming crunching noise and a sickening thud as your hard disk grinds to a halt. You threaten, cajole, and beg your PC to come back to life. Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, you remember what else is entombed on that disk–your customer database, accounting records, marketing materials, and more. Do you know what to do next?

Data disappears from our desktops for a variety of reasons: According to Ontrack Data International, an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based data recovery service, 44 percent of data is lost to mechanical failures, 32 percent to human error (which includes fire), 14 percent to software problems, 7 percent to viruses, and 3 percent to natural disasters. While the best defense against data loss is regular backup, backups aren’t foolproof, nor can they protect your data against physical damage to your hardware.

Our data recovery guide introduces software tools and services that can bring your data back from the dead, offers strategies for recovering lost files, and provides insider tips for keeping data safe in the future. You’ll also learn how two home office users bounced back from data disasters.

WHAT’S YOUR POISON?

Key to recovering data loss is recognizing whether the problem was caused by hardware failure or software (including human) error. If your hard disk stops dead or has been physically damaged, don’t attempt a file rescue mission using a software utility. Instead, call a professional data recovery expert. On the other hand, if your data has been accidentally deleted or is the victim of a computer virus or other software-related problem, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to rescue the files yourself, if you act quickly and use the right tools.

For example, perhaps you sent a product photo to the Recycle Bin and then changed your mind, or maybe your kids dumped the file by mistake. First, realize that deleted files stay hidden on your hard disk until you overwrite them with new data. Therefore, the moment you realize data is missing, stop downloading or saving new files. Next, install a data recovery product such as PowerQuest’s Lost & Found ($70; 800-379-2566, www.powerquest.com). Lost & Found employs a powerful search algorithm to find and restore missing data. It can even recover files lost due to hard disk reformatting, as long as no new data has been written to the disk.

Next to human error, viruses are another frequent source of sabotaged data. While antivirus tools may be able to remove the offending bug, you could still be left with missing files. Lost & Found may also be successful here; PowerQuest says the product rescued data from hundreds of PCs affected by the Chernobyl virus last spring.

To recover from more severe file corruptions–such as those caused by conflicts with recently installed software or unexpected internal errors–you’ll want to arm your system with a rollback utility such as Wild File’s GoBack 2.1 ($70; 888-945-3345, www.goback.com) or PowerQuest’s Second-Chance ($70) before trouble strikes. This way, if you experience a general protection fault (known to Windows buffs as the Blue Screen of Death) and lose files when you reboot the system, you’ll be able to send your system back in time to when the files were intact. Because such programs monitor and record every change made to your computer–from single file deletions to entire software upgrades–they can roll back to before the crash and let you grab the document. Or, if bad software is to blame, they let you revert your system to preinstallation settings, remove the conflict, and recover your data in the process.

A JOB FOR THE PROS

When your hard disk quits working, or your business is ravaged by flooding, earthquakes, or fires, retrieving data from a physically damaged computer may seem impossible. But not always.

Data recovery companies such as DriveSavers in Novato, Calif. (800-440-1904, www.drivesavers.com) and Ontrack Data International (800-872-2599, www.ontrack.com) make it their business to rescue data after the most outrageous computer catastrophes.

“If you can think of it, we’ve probably seen it,” says DriveSavers president Scott Gaidano. The Museum of Bizarre Disk-asters on the company’s Web site showcases such improbable success stories as a laptop flattened by a tour bus, computers baptized by fire, and an Apple PowerBook that spent two days submerged in a river.

While OnTrack also offers remote data recovery services for software-based problems, hardware failures require you to ship the system or hard disk to the company for recovery. When you call to arrange shipment, you’ll need to describe what caused the loss and how much data was involved. In return, you’ll get a cost estimate over the phone, and an explanation of the expertise required to restore the data. Costs typically range from $.200 for a floppy disk to a few thousand dollars for a large disk drive or network server.

Once your hard disk arrives, clean-room technicians perform an initial evaluation. Dressed in special suits, hairnets, face masks, and gloves, they attempt to get the drive going long enough to make a copy of the data. Next, a second team of software specialists works to piece together the battered data. In many cases, data is restored in two days or less, but more severe situations require a week or more. The data is then delivered to you on the medium of your choice, Gaidano explains.

If you find yourself the victim of a hardware meltdown, you can improve your chances of getting your data back by following these tips from Gaidano:

* If your computer is making any unusual clicking or grinding sounds, turn it off immediately. “Strange noises are trouble,” says Gaidano. Turning the system off will help avoid further damage.

* Don’t use file recovery utilities if you suspect hardware failure. “Improperly using tools like Norton Utilities could render data unrecoverable,” he says.

* Never save work to your hard disk if you’ve accidentally deleted data or you discover files are missing. “If you must save a work in progress, save it to a floppy or alternate location.”

* Don’t attempt to clean or operate any hardware device that’s been dropped, crushed, exposed to heat, or damaged by water or smoke.

IT HAPPENED TO ME

NAME: Tracy Spears, owner of MizTech Marketing Communications, Santa Cruz, Calif.

DISASTER: Mac meltdown

SOLUTION: Data recovery service

Spears required the services of a data recovery firm after the unexpected crash of her Power Mac 8100 last May. “Although I had some files archived, of course I didn’t have any of my current client’s work backed up,” she says. To add insult to injury, she had recently ordered a backup system that hadn’t yet arrived.

The MizTech owner first contacted a friend with Mac expertise, but since her hard disk was damaged beyond repair, Spears’s friend failed to recover the data. She then called a local data recovery company that “worked for three days straight on my machine and, in the end was able to recover nearly all the data,” she says.

Spears says she considers herself lucky: “1 paid a paltry sum compared to what it would have cost to redo the work.” And her recommendation? Back up often.

“If you can buy or create an automated [backup] system, do so. If not, take the time to manually back up at least once a week. It will save many headaches later on.” says Spears.

IT HAPPENED TO ME

NAME: Paul Mayer, president of Paul’s Web Designs and ZPay Payroll Systems Inc., St. Petersburg, Fla.

DISASTER: Accidental deletion of source code for his software product SOLUTION: Software recovery utility

Since the early 1980s, Mayer has developed and distributed shareware programs from his home office. Back when the company was starting out, Mayer experienced his biggest data loss. “We didn’t do backups in those days,” he recalls, so he had nearly three years’ worth of work stored on his hard disk–including the source code of his payroll utility, ZPay–when he attempted to install a new accounting package.

“I just went through the install pages clicking on the default prompts,” recalls Mayer, “and then the message in the middle of the screen said, ‘Now formatting the hard drive’!” Mayer pulled the plug of his PC in an effort to recover the data, but the formatting had already begun. “Three years of source code for the payroll software we sold [was] lost in less than a second,” he says.

Mayer managed to recover all the files using some low-level disk tools, but the process was painstaking and took several months. “I sorted through thousands of files to piece back what we had in source code,” he sighs.

These days, Mayer preaches the importance of backup every chance he gets: “Time is money, and if you have more money than brains, then go ahead and play Russian roulette with your data. But if you’re sensible, be sure to have a good backup system and a program to back up your data. And most important, do it religiously–as though your life depended on it.”

Database It, If You Haven’t Already

April 11th, 2014

dyhrTO PROPERLY TARGET YOUR PRODUCTS OR SERVICES to existing customers, you need to know who your customers are. In other words, you need a database that contains as much detail as you can get about them–what they buy and how often, or which promotions are most successful and which customers participate in them. You can then save time and money by targeting events and products more accurately.

There are several ways to create a customer database. An obvious option is to build one from scratch using a database program such as Microsoft Access, Lotus Approach, or FileMaker Pro. If you’re not comfortable with the program’s design and report-generation features, you might consider having the database designed by a subcontractor or professional with experience in business applications.

Either way, it’s smart to begin by making a list of all the information you want to get out of your database–for example, your top 100 customers by dollars spent, the percentage of customers that accept a particular promotional offer, and the products each customer buys. If you know what is to come out of your database in the form of reports or lists, you can more easily determine what needs to be input. Design your database so you collect only the data you need–don’t waste time entering data you’ll never use.

Choosing Software Your accounting software may already contain much of the information you need for a customer database. If so, check whether the publisher offers add-on modules you can purchase for maintaining your database. Also, check the manual for built-in functions you’re not currently using. You may discover that your accounting package provides all the tools for storing and retrieving the customer data you require, with the added bonus that you won’t be duplicating your data.

Alternatively, your accounting program may store data in an open or standard format, accessible by other programs including Microsoft Access or Seagate Software’s Crystal Reports, or there may be a developer kit for the software that permits programmers to add other functions to it. To investigate these possibilities, check your software manual or call the company.

A simpler option is to use a contact management package like Multiactive Software Inc.’s Maximizer 5.0 ($149; 888-577-7809, www.maximizer.com), Symantec’s Act 2000  or Microsoft Outlook 2000 \. These programs are usually easier to use than a programmable database, and shouldn’t require specialist skills to get good results. You won’t get the level of personalization you’d get with a custom-designed solution, but it won’t cost as much either.

Gathering Data If you have only a few customers or operate a mail order or account-based system, creating a database will be easy. If you operate a retail store or a business that doesn’t maintain close links with customers, you’ll need to be more creative. Here are some ideas:

* Offer a small weekly giveaway that customers enter by leaving their business cards (keep blank cards and a pen on hand, too).

* Offer to add a customer’s name to your mailing list.

* Offer a discount on a customer’s fifth or 10th purchase and record his details at that time.

Remember, you don’t have to offer a trip to Hawaii–a “free coffee and Danish” promotion can get results far outweighing its cost. Once you get a customer’s basic details, develop a system for tracking how often he visits, what he buys, and how much he spends.

No Substitute for Good Service

Once you have your data, use it to offer good service and to target your advertising. If you know what someone’s bought or what products he owns already, you can send information about complementary products that might also interest him. You can do this by merging a letter with selected customers from your database.

Build It and They Will Come

If you decide to sell your business, a customer database can add extra value to it, but databases aren’t build overnight. A good database contains detailed historical information–so the time to start adding value to your business is now.

Some final tips for your database:

* Keep the information up-to-date, or it will be useless.

* Ensure the information is accurate.

* Allocate time to update and maintain the database–don’t let it become one of those jobs you’ll do “someday.”

* Add prospective customers to your database so you routinely vie for their business.

* Use it! If you don’t, you’re just wasting time creating and maintaining it.

A More Dynamic Database

Road warriors should consider a customer database that’s compatible with a handheld computer or personal digital assistant (PDA), so they can lake their data along and update it while on the road, then synchronize it when they return. Why not set up your database so it’s accessible from the Web for quick access and updating?

If browser-based access is all you need, consider a static presentation, where predefined information is displayed but cannot be altered. Most database and contact management programs have options for publishing data to your Web site or company intranet, so anyone with a Web browser can view it.

If your data changes frequently or users need to alter as well as access data remotely, you’ll need a dynamic database solution. This requires special software that creates a two-way connection between Web server and database. Some database programs provide this; Microsoft Access, for instance, can deliver data in Active Server Pages (ASP) format, with the ability to navigate and update database tables from a compatible browser. In most cases, however, the range of database formats and Web server software is such that it’s a specialist’s task to connect the two.

An alternative solution is to copy a small database to a virtual drive or Internet server, so you can access it from the road. A number of Web-based storage providers such as Free Disk Space and X:drive offer 10MB, 25MB, or more of server space at no cost; you can use the space to back up files, share them, and access them while traveling.

Finances: Keeping ‘Em Separated

April 6th, 2014

fkesWhether it’s a corporate credit card, a business checking account, an entry in Intuit’s QuickBooks, or just a pouchful of business receipts kept in her purse–and later stapled to an expense report–April Spring has drawn a broad demilitarized zone between her personal and business finances.

“I treat myself as if I were the CFO or the president of a large corporation,” says Spring, principal with Spring & Associates LLC, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based corporate administration and investor relations firm. “I learned years ago that if you want to be like those at the top, you have to act like those at the top.”

Many home office workers commingle their finances, drawing business and personal expenses from the same till. Business checks are deposited into a personal account, or the business ATM is tapped to pay for the family’s night on the town. Business expenses are paid with personal petty cash, with no concern for receipts–or the potential reimbursements or tax deductions they can bring.

Accountants and tax planners warn that this is no way to do business. Using accepted accounting practices from the get-go helps present a professional image to your clients, vendors, and even potential lenders–and it sets the right course in motion for business growth.

“It’s critical to start thinking like a businessperson,” says Harold Lacy, director of The Money Institute, a Golden, Colo.-based small-business finance consultancy, and author of Venture CapitalMade E-Z (on CD-ROM, Made E-Z Products, 1999). “It helps separate your thought processes in keeping track of revenues and expenses, and helps you judge the progress of the business. And the message it conveys to suppliers and customers lets them know that you’ve put your heart and soul into this business,” he says.

BANK ON IT

Business banking accounts aren’t new. But what is new is that banks today are catering to small and home-based businesses as never before, says Laura Starita, a senior analyst with the financial services sector of Gartner Group, the Stamford, Conn.-based research consultancy.

Historically, banks have not seen any difference between consumer banking and small business, and hence did not develop products and services to address the needs of the small-business customer. So without any incentive to do otherwise, small-business customers managed their companies from their personal accounts, Starita explains.

“They just appeared, from the bank’s perspective, to be high-activity customers,” she says. But “that is changing now as banks, especially in the community bank sectors, have realized that their small-business customers are actually a highly profitable area of the business.”

In fact, according to the 1999 Consumer Bankers Association Small Business Banking study, the small-business market has been an important source of earnings and growth for most banks over the past decade. More than 70 percent of those surveyed said deep customer relationships were the top characteristic that drew small businesses to area banks; and 85 percent of banks rely on branch managers to attract and retain small-business relationships, the report notes.

With the debut of small-business software packages–such as the Home & Business version of Intuit’s Quicken and Business & Personal edition of Microsoft Money–it’s become easier to separate business expenses from personal ones, Starita says. While the popular Quicken personal finance package boasts 12 million active users, she says, other business owners use simple Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to track their finances.

But more than simplifying finances, setting up business accounts and loading business software help present the right image to would-be lenders. As your business incorporates, expands, adds employees, or generates greater cash flow, the demand for commonly accepted practices and clean books for tax purposes becomes more important, says The Money Institute’s Lacy, who was a bank loan officer for 20 years. By establishing a pattern of professional record-keeping and fiscal management early on, your business will have an easily traceable track record.

AVOIDING THE RED FLAG

The fear of an IRS audit keeps Paul McCann’s business books squeaky clean. Even his accountant, a former IRS agent, has warned him of the risks of commingling funds. As director of Weldon Research, a Huntington Beach, Calif.-based executive recruitment firm, McCann realizes it costs a bit more to have a separate checking account and credit cards for his business and to have his accountant scan the additional records each year. And it takes time for his wife, Lisa, to pore over the receipts and scraps of paper on which McCann scratches out expense reminders, then enter all the expenses and income into Quicken.

But somehow, keeping separate books is more comforting, McCann says: “It’s laborious. There’s a lot of entry. But it’s like going to the dentist. It’s got to be done. The looming thought of an audit–that’s what keeps you honest. I just try to keep it all separate for the tax man.”

The reason for all the separate accounts, filing efforts, and accounting practices is simple, says Lewis Weinstein, president of TaxLogic Corp., a Needham, Mass.-based online tax-preparation service: “You want to know how the business is doing; and if an audit is called, you want to be able to substantiate your records in a clean, efficient manner. [And] if someone ever wants to know if they’re making or losing money, the only way [to find out] is to account for it.”

Weinstein advises business owners to use software to track income and expenses; use credit cards that provide quarterly and year-end summaries of expenses categorized into meals, lodging, automobile, and so on; and keep a folder to collect cash receipts. “Then, come tax time, you go to your checkbook, cash folder, [and the American Express] statement; combine the three; and you’re ready to do your tax return,” he says.

STARTING OUT RIGHT

Spring learned early on why she had to keep her books separate. In a previous venture, she ran her business through her personal checking account. The result was contusion at tax time–and the lingering worry that this practice would draw the ire of the IRS.

“Everyone’s read the horror stories,” she says, “and intuition this time said let’s do it right the first time.” Besides, Spring consults with corporations on their investor relations and internal communications; she’s keen to present a professional image to her clients. “I wanted them to trust that I had a viable corporation,” she says.

Spring’s first step when opening her home business in June 1998 was to visit the branch manager at the Boca Raton NationsBank, where she’d had a personal checking account for nine years. For $15 per month, she set up a separate business checking account. Admittedly, Spring notes, she could have shopped around to get her monthly fees lowered or even waived, stocked up on a bundle of free business checks, or some similar perk. Instead, she decided to go where she was known.

She then applied for a corporate American Express card. Not only does it look impressive when treating clients to a meal, but it gets her discounts of up to 15 percent at such merchants as FedEx, Kinko’s, Avis, Hertz, Hilton, and a “flock of airlines,” Spring says. She’s also applied for a corporate Visa card so she can establish revolving credit to help fund business marketing and growth, and to buffer slower times.

At the end of the day, Spring pulls out a pouch of receipts, tallies them, and completes an expense report. If personal cash was used to buy anything for the business, she’ll write herself a check at month’s end. She then hits her PC, which is loaded with QuickBooks 6.0, and enters all her expenses.

Spring runs her home office with business efficiency. She has dedicated business phone and fax lines, and she uses account coding from her long-distance carrier to help determine whom to bill for her toll calls. What’s more, because the lines are dedicated, all Spring has to do at the end of the month is pay the bill, without having to worry about dividing the personal and business shares of one phone bill.

At tax time, Spring will tap Intuit’s TurboTax to do her own taxes. For good measure, she has her accountant come over on a quarterly basis to examine her books. Spring believes good accounting can lead to a successful business. “A CFO not doing his or her job can be the downfall of a company,” she says.

BEYOND THE BASICS

The U.S. Tax Code doesn’t require sole proprietorships to open separate business checking accounts or to carry business credit cards, says Jeffrey A. Schneider, a Lauder Hill, Fla.-based accountant. In fact, only legal entities such as corporations, limited liability companies, and partnerships must have separate checking accounts.

But like McCann, if you want to look legitimate in the eyes of the law, you should open a separate checking account and follow good bookkeeping practices, Schneider advises. Some people don’t keep separate accounts, he says, because it’s easier and less expensive to keep just one; they’d rather balance one checkbook each month.

To save on bank fees, find out if your local bank will let your sole proprietorship piggyback a second personal checking account on your first. A second account is often free or discounted, according to Schneider. Then cut your check-printing fees by turning to custom printers to imprint checks with your company name and personal account number, instead of going through the bank.

“It’s just Jeffrey Schneider Tax and Accounting Services. No Inc., Corp., or Co.,” Schneider says of his checks. “The image is better, but the fees are less,” he adds. By not having Inc., Corp., or Co. on his checks, which banks prohibit on personal accounts, Schneider can save cash and impart a professional image to his clients.

Although the details can get dizzying–having a second account, using separate credit cards, tallying all your expenses in a software application–home-based business consultant Suzanne Caplan sees no other way to do it. The author of High-Profit Financial Management for Your Small Business (Dearborn, 1999), Caplan says the way she handles her business finances does more than help her get bank financing or offer added protection against an IRS audit.

The validity that comes with the practices helps clients and vendors see her as a professional who happens to work at home, Caplan says. “It helps you think big and establish the cash flow to grow big,” she says. “And it helps others perceive you as big.”

Let Your Website Sound Off!

March 28th, 2014

wsdIN DESIGNING YOUR WEB SITE YOU followed all the rules, jettisoned slow-loading graphics, and provided visitors with handy search and even polling and chat features. The next step is to wow them with audio.

You can use sound to enhance your site in a variety of ways–to inform visitors about a product or service, entertain them as they navigate your site, or as vehicle for communicating with you in real time. Although adding an audio component has always been possible, tricky code and hefty downloads have made it tough for all but the most tech-savvy Webmasters to implement. Now, a new wave of tools makes it easy.

“A Web site without sound is like watching The X-Files with the volume off,” says Alexis Vincent Aiosa, a Los Angeles-based, e-commerce graphic artist who displays his audio-enhanced work at www.loop.com/~avaiosa. “The interactivity of the Web is lost without sound,” Aiosa adds.

Livening up your pages with audio is fun, but it’s also good for business. A recent study by Arbitron New Media and Edison Media Research found that surfers who listen to Web audio are 43 percent more likely to make an online purchase than those who do not.

“Sound can be a wonderful feature,” says Jim Sterne, president of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Target Marketing, and author of World Wide Web Marketing (John Wiley & Sons). “If you’re selling something that can be better understood if it’s heard, then sound is the right addition.” Sterne also recommends making your audio features tasteful, unobtrusive, and quick to download.

Get the Beat You won’t find many mortgage lenders who admit to being beatniks, but Sam Berkebile is one–a Beatnik (www.beamik.com) user, that is. Last June, the manager of Hanover, Pa.-based All American Mortgage Co. enhanced his commercial lending site with Beatnik’s free audio service.

Instead of the silence that greets most Web sites’ visitors, Berkebile’s customers enjoy light, jazzy tunes when clicking on the Mortgage Calculator or Residential Lending button. “It lets people know we’re not a bunch of stiff suits,” says Berkebile of the “sonified” site.

As coined by Beatnik, “sonification” is the process of making the sound and music on your Web pages interactive in real time. When a visitor moves the cursor over an area on your site, or clicks on an object (say, a button labeled Find Out More), that triggers the audio. Other Beatnik choices include accordion or violin music, a gunshot, a castanet rattling, and even a bird call.

To add Beatnik audio, copy the free HTML code from the Beatnik site, then paste it where appropriate in your pages. In order to hear your audio, visitors must download a plug-in when they arrive at your site. “Music softens our image,” says Berkebile. “It makes us seem more like an interactive TV show” than a mortgage lender, he adds.

Phone Home If you want to connect with customers via the Web and the phone, consider WebCallback (www.webcallback.com), one of a new wave of telephony applications built for the Web. When a visitor clicks on the WebCallback link and enters his phone number, the program makes a call to your company. When you answer, WebCallback alerts you that a Web customer is calling, then connects you.

The service costs 16.9 cents per minute for domestic long-distance calls, plus a monthly $10 charge. And as with Beatnik, you cut and paste the WebCallback code into your Web site’s HTML.

Seattle-based real estate broker David Sprague says adding the feature to his site (WestCoastAreaHomes. com) has been a “worthwhile experiment. Customers like knowing it’s there, and I’d guess 10 percent of those who use it make a purchase. It adds something extra.”

Leave a Message Something extra is what you get with PageTalk (www.pagetalk.com), which lets you record a 20-second message letting site visitors know, say, that a product is out of stock or certain items are on sale.

PageTalk works with the free, downloadable RealAudio player. To use it, just cut and paste the free HTML code from PageTalk’s site to yours, then dial the provided 800 number and record your message. Visitors simply click on the button to hear the message. You can change the message as often as you like–every day, or every hour.

Internet Appliances: Ok, So They Were Right

February 4th, 2014

iaoBUZZWORDS INEVITABLY accompany change. Just five years ago, most folks thought a telecommuter was someone who worked for the phone company, and a home office was where you balanced your checkbook. Today, the dominance of desktop computing and Internet access is giving way to what pundits are calling the post-PC era. In this brave new world, Internet-connected devices promise to make your workdays more productive and your business more profitable, whether you’re in the office or away.

The post-PC era arguably began in 1996 with the advent of the first popular personal digital assistant (PDA), the Pilot (soon renamed PalmPilot), which provided e-mail access in conjunction with a wired modem. Today, Palm OS and other handhelds are joined by a slew of wireless data options. There are modems from Novatel Wireless and Sierra Wireless and flat-rate wireless service plans from OmniSky and Go. America; Web-browsing phones from Qualcomm, Neopoint, and others that work with Sprint PCS’s nationwide smart phone service; two-way paging services from PageNet and SkyTel; and many more examples in every category. Even in-dash computers with global positioning system (GPS) capability are available, and General Motors recently announced plans to offer “Web cars” from which you can check your e-mail.

This year, however, will be marked by a wide range of next-generation devices entering the marketplace–referred to as Net devices, Web appliances, PC appliances, and the like–targeted to consumers, home workers, and mobile users. In the coming years, as prices fall and products become more specialized, we’ll each own a variety of both mobile and fixed devices. To give you a sense of your options today, and what the near future will bring, we’ll take you through a day in the life of the home office worker in the new millennium.

RISE AND SHINE

At the start of your day, you roll out of bed, and long before you sit down to work, you’re already participating in the post-PC world.

Today Since you’re training for a big 10K race, you hop on your Web-enabled treadmill, log on simultaneously with a friend, and conduct a virtual workout session. Displayed graphically on a nearby computer screen, the session includes a sprint to the finish, which you win. This capability is available on a wide range of fitness equipment from Icon Health & Fitness (www.iconfitness.com).

After a shower, you head to the kitchen to fix yourself some breakfast. You’re expecting an important e-mail message from a client, so you touch the screen of your Netpliance i-opener ($199; 888-467-3637, www. netpliance.net) to automatically connect to the Internet. About the size of a toaster oven, the device includes a small LCD and keyboard.

You type a quick response as the coffee brews, then press another onscreen icon for the latest news, including stories specific to your industry. As you head to the dining room with your cereal and coffee, you press a third icon to select some music downloaded from the Web.

Sitting at your elbow in the dining room is a Cidco MailStation ($150 plus $9.95 per month for e-mail service; 408-779-1162, www.cidco. com). Smaller than the i-opener, it lives to do one thing–send and receive e-mail. Another message arrives; you put aside your mug and bowl, read the message, and type a quick response.

The only limitation of this present-day scenario is that both the i-opener and MailStation require you to use proprietary dial-up services and e-mail accounts. However, Boundless Technologies hopes to convince Internet service providers (ISPs) to sell or give away its forthcoming iBrow device (pricing not available at press time; 800-231-5445, www.boundless. com/ibrow). Boundless hopes you’ll place multiple iBrows throughout your home, all connected to the same account. A company spokesperson says several major national ISPs, as well as some smaller ones, will offer the device by the time you read this.

Soon Within a year, you’ll be able to connect all your home-based Internet devices to an inexpensive home server. This server, or residential gateway, will store information and connect to the Web via an analog or broadband connection.

Although first-generation gateways are available today–notably Web and home entertainment combos from Panja (prices start at $2,000; 800-222-0193, www.panja.com)–they’re expensive and geared to connecting home electronics devices to the Internet via broadband connections. Ericsson, Nokia, and Electrolux, as well as a handful of start-up companies, are developing affordable, multipurpose servers and gateways that will connect everything from your desktop smart phone to refrigerator and other kitchen appliances.

Although consumer demand isn’t strong, Ericsson and Electrolux promise to bring products to market next year that, among other things, let you link electronics such as stereos to download music from the Web, and check your household temperature and adjust it from afar. The latter is already possible with home control products from X10 (www.x10.com) and IBM’s Home Director line (www.pc.ibm.com/homedirector), for instance.

AT YOUR DESK

Time to get down to work. Although you have a traditional desktop computer in your office, you use it only for heavy computational tasks and graphics design–unless such jobs make up a big part of your day, you’ll probably have the system hidden away until you need it and rely on multiple smaller devices for moment-to-moment tasks.

Today Since your workspace isn’t dominated by a big computer and monitor, spread out on your desk are … paper documents. Although the paperless office has been a dream since the 1950s, paper will continue to be with us well into the future. Besides, most workers admit they like working with hard copies.

While the desktop computer is gone, there’s still a PC on your desk. Specifically, it’s in the phone. The iPhone from InfoGear Technology ($399; 650-568-2900, www. infogear.com) isn’t much bigger than a standard corded two-line phone, but includes an LCD screen and small keyboard for checking e-mail and surfing the Web. The iPhone automatically checks for e-mail when you’re not using the voice line and alerts you to new e-mails with a blinking light just like your answering machine’s.

Soon You’ll be using your desktop phone or other Web device for light-duty application work, thanks to application service providers (ASPs)–companies that provide Web-based productivity applications on demand. (See the article “Leave the Laptop at Home” in this issue’s Up Front section.)

By the same token, since your desktop smart phone isn’t based on. Windows, it will not be running programs such as Microsoft Excel. Instead, you’ll log on to an ASP such as Damango (www.damango.com) to access its free Java-based applications and data storage, or any of the scores of specialized ASPs, such as NetLedger’s (www.netledger.com) online accounting software.

About four or five years down the road, all the rooms in your home may well have a large, flat-panel screen mounted on the wall. (Technically, jumbo screens like Sony’s 42-inch gas plasma display are available now, but they cost around $50,000 apiece.) In the future, they are likely to connect to the Web via your home server.

ON THE ROAD

Because they’re small and sexy, mobile gadgets get more than their fair share of attention. Realistically, most home office users won’t rely on more than one or two portable devices, though we’ll stretch things a bit to mention a few more of your options.

Today It’s time to drive to a client’s site. Since you’re not sure how to get there, you ask your Clarion AutoPC ($1,299 for base unit; 800-462-5274, www. autopc.com). The optional Odyssey software ($200; InfoGation, 619-535-9870, www.infogation.com), which works with a GPS receiver, not only provides turn-by-turn directions, but speaks them to you as you drive, providing enough warning to switch lanes and put on your turn signals.

Missed a turn? AutoPC says so and guides you back on track. As you pull into the parking lot, you check e-mail by logging on with your NeoPoint 1000 smart phone ($399; 858-458-2800, www.neopoint.com). You have an urgent message, which you could respond to via e-mail, but you opt to call instead.

While meeting with the client, you have a question about the firm’s inventory. She queries the corporate database with her Palm VII ($499 plus wireless service fees; Palm Computing, 800-881-7256, www.palm.com). Her assistant’s beeper goes off, but this is no normal page because his Motorola PageWriter 2000x (prices vary by paging vendor; www.mot.com/MIMS/MSPG/SmartPagers) has delivered an urgent e-mail message. He types a reply on the pager’s petite keyboard. (Pagers may be usurped by smart phones, but as of yet, no smart phone delivers full paging capability.)

Soon By the time you read this, several vendors promise real-time traffic reports delivered to your in-car computer. SmartRoute Systems (www. smartroute.com) and PageNet (www. pagenet.com) claim to offer “traffic-aware” routing directions to help you avoid trouble spots such as road construction and accidents.

In addition, at press time Etak launched its Traveler Information system (www.etaktraffic.com), which works with GPSs to deliver real-time traffic reports in 36 cities, expanding to 64 in the coming months. Today, the service is available through content providers such as Saraide (www.saraide.com).

While you’re away from home, you realize you can’t remember whether you turned off the stove. Any Web-enabled mobile device will be able to link to your home server, which monitors all your home systems and appliances. If there’s a problem, you can fix it remotely. In this case, you turn off the stove, and while you’re at it, adjust the temperature in the house or even your hot tub. Firms such as Coactive Networks (www.coactive.com) are trying to sell such capabilities to utility companies, which, in turn, would offer them to you.

You can also also look forward to greatly increased wireless data transfer speeds. Currently, data transmission speeds range from 4Kbps to about 19.2Kbps. However, new technologies such as General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and third-generation (3G) W-CDMA will soon provide broadband access at up to 384Kbps.

GPRS should be available in metropolitan areas in the U.S. by 2001, with 3G following 12 to 18 months later. Such advances mean you’ll soon be browsing the Web and accessing e-mail (including file attachments) from your wireless handheld or smart phone without long download times. (See “Here Come the Data Phones,” January, page 17.)

WINDING DOWN

Since you’ve been calling on clients most of the day, you haven’t checked your e-mail. When you get home, the light is blinking on your Cidco MailStation; you check messages, respond, then finally call it a day.

Today As has been the case for centuries, you turn to a good book to relax. However, there isn’t a shred of paper in post-PC-era books. Instead, you put a device such as NuvoMedia’s Rocket eBook ($199; www.nuvomedia.com) into its cradle and download the newest best-seller from the Web. Recently, Barnes & Noble began selling Rocket eBook and increasing its collection of downloadable titles; Amazon.com and other online booksellers are following suit. Moreover, Microsoft says it plans to make “tens of thousands” of e-book titles available this year.

Next, you switch on your television. WebTV Networks (Microsoft; hardware available from a variety of vendors; www.webtv.com) recently announced interactive versions of “Jeopardy!” and other popular game shows.

You can also enjoy a picture-in-picture view of a Web connection that will enhance your news and sports viewing. Increasingly, set-top box vendors such as N@ppliance Inc.’s Advanced Interactive TV (AITV) (available from ISPs; www.n-appliance.com) let you watch television in one window and browse the Web in another.

As you’re watching, you remember that you need to do some shopping. You flick a button on your remote and your TV program switches to full-screen Web access. In a moment, you’re browsing the site of your favorite clothier.

Your kids and spouse arrive home and it’s time for some family fun. How about a karaoke session? By the time you read this, LG Electronics has promised to release the iGST CyberPro 5050 (pricing was not available at press time; www.lgeus.com), a karaoke-enabled set-top box that downloads music from the Web.

Soon While most set-top boxes currently rely on relatively slow 56Kbps modems, they and other home-based Web devices will become more convenient as fast Internet access becomes more prevalent. While it now takes about 15 minutes to download a single song using a modem connection, for instance, a broadband connection promises to let you download an entire album in the same time.

In fact, various set-top and software vendors already are demonstrating audio and video portals that will play movies and music–delivered from the Web–on your TV. Other improvements will focus on home servers for storing downloaded music.

Finally, as you go to bed, you make a mental note to finish that budget spreadsheet tomorrow–on your PC, of course. No specialized appliance may ever match the versatility-to-price ratio of a personal computer, but taking advantage of tomorrow’s wider range of options and alternatives will make both your home and home office life better.