From the April 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

When you want to buy new computer equipment and software, your first instinct may be to head down to the nearest computer superstore. But while traditional avenues have their place, there's a host of other methods for evaluating and purchasing information technology that, in many cases, make for more informed choices and are both faster and cheaper.

One of the most popular ways small businesses buy technology products is through mail order. By calling companies such as Dell Computer (800-879-3355), Compaq Computer (800-888-5858) and Gateway 2000 (800-846-2000) directly, you can place your order for computer products and have them shipped directly to your doorstep. Entrepreneurs who've tried it swear by the ease of ordering and low prices mail order delivers (although some claim there is also a lower level of technical support).

The Internet is also proving useful in the quest for the perfect machine--particularly when it comes to investigating new products. An inquiry on a search engine, such as AltaVista or Yahoo!, will quickly lead you to the latest technology reviews, company press releases and other product information.

"Not only does the Internet speed up information-gathering, but it also improves the quality of the search," says Robert Straus, an analyst specializing in small-business issues at IDC/Link, a technology research firm in New York City. Some high-tech companies, including Microsoft (http://www.microsoft.com/smallbiz) and Apple (http://www.smallbusiness.apple.com), have small-business sites that detail products geared toward entrepreneurial companies, offer tips on using and purchasing technology products and more.

Once you've completed your research, several Internet sites allow you to submit your credit card number and purchase wares online. Others will let you download software and get a free trial. You can also try sites such as the Xoom Software Network (http://www.xoom.com), which gives subscribers unlimited access to download a variety of applications for an annual subscription price of $29.95.

Need to upgrade software? You can do so without ever leaving the comfort of your chair. Many software companies now allow you to simply download the latest versions from their Web sites. And because some modem manufacturers are including reprogrammable software in their products, you may, for instance, be able to upgrade to a 56.6 Kbps modem just by downloading software that automatically reconfigures the chip.

With such ease and effectiveness, you might predict that someday small-business owners will use solely electronic avenues to acquire technology products. In reality, however, the answer lies somewhere in between. Straus predicts buying from computer superstores and purchasing directly from companies such as Dell and Gateway will continue to grow alongside the electronic methods.

Game Over

Years of observing employees playing computer games on company time finally led computer consultant Michael Moles to build a software program to put an end to all this funny business. "I saw literally 20 to 30 hours wasted each day at these companies," marvels the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, entrepreneur. "Games that would start at lunch would continue until 2 or 3 in the afternoon."

Started in 1995, Moles' second business, Wards Creek Software Inc., recently released GameWarden, a program that locks up Doom and Descent games for specified time periods. While he initially envisioned an application that cracks down solely on network game-playing, the software, available in Windows 95 and Windows NT versions, also contains features for monitoring or restricting local game use and Internet browsing.

GameWarden can serve as a watchful eye by simply furnishing reports on individual use, or can offer more advanced controls that confine game-playing and Internet surfing to, say, lunch time or after-hours only, or shut off problem users cold turkey if needed.

The 36-year-old entrepreneur insists he's no (joy)stick-in-the-mud: He's just as likely to fritter away hours at a game of solitaire as the rest of us. Yet, at the same time, he also sees real merit in giving companies--and employees--the tools to keep the fun and games within limits. Says Moles, "I don't want to stop people from playing games, but I do want to give them the ability to control them."

Contact Sources

IDC/Link, 2 Park Ave., #1420, New York, NY 10016, (http://www.idcresearch.com);

Wards Creek Software Inc., (888) 366-8807, (http://www.gamewarden.com);

Xoom Software Network, 433 California St., #910, San Francisco, CA 94104, (415) 445-2525.