Although e-mail has not yet surpassed telephones (or voice mail) as the most common means of communication, and the idea that Web sites will replace standard advertising still seems incredibly far-fetched, there's no question that times have changed. In today's wired world, if your business cards lack an e-mail or Web site address, your credentials may come into question--much like the situation 10 or so years ago if your office lacked a fax machine.
All this technology may seem a bit daunting, but it's been a major blessing for small entrepreneurial companies that have used today's fast-paced communication tools to their benefit. That includes everything from selling products via the Internet, creating a new business based on Web distribution, or simply communicating with associates more affordably via e-mail.
And there are more ways of utilizing the Internet to your company's bottom-line benefit. For example, there's the growing trend of using the Internet for long-distance telephone calls--we're talking actual voice calls. It makes sense: Paying only the one low price of an Internet connection (currently about $20 per month) minimizes your long-distance telephone costs.
Another new use of the Net that increases productivity is the creation of "buddy lists." These programs let you chat online in real time, a boon to individuals who work remotely and need to be in constant touch with partners, customers and vendors.
Talk It Up
Enter the amazing world of Internet telephony, and you'll quickly see big savings on your phone bills. Although numerous companies have launched Internet phone solutions, including ICQ (http://www.icq.com) and iChat (http://www.ichat.com), the most well-known of the group is VocalTec's Internet Phone. VocalTec launched Internet Phone, the first Internet Protocol (IP) telephony software, in 1995, and they've been steamrolling through the industry ever since.
Internet Phone is now in its fifth version and includes support not only for voice, but for video and data as well. A free two-week trial version can be downloaded from the company's Web site at http://www.vocaltec.com, or you can purchase the software at any major software retailer for $49.95. To run Internet Phone, you'll need a Pentium 75 MHz PC or higher, 16MB RAM, a sound card, and a microphone and speakers.
I downloaded the 8.5MB program from the VocalTec site, a process that took about 20 minutes, and then set to work talking over the Net. My first visit was to VocalTec's home page, where I discovered I could chat with people I've never met. Although there was no one available to chat with when I logged on, I learned that I could sign up for PC-to-phone service with an Internet Telephony Service Provider (ITSP). The remarkable thing here is that you're able to talk over the Internet to anyone almost anywhere in the world. The drawback is that PC-to-phone service isn't free, as are PC-to-PC telephone calls, because at the end of the line, your call is routed to a standard local telephone line. But it could still save you thousands of dollars, depending on where you call most.
For example, it costs more to dial the United Kingdom over an ITSP (16 cents per minute) than over my landline (12 cents per minute with MCI). But other destinations had incredible rates, including just 19 cents per minute to Australia (I pay more than 50 cents per minute with MCI).
Before signing up for PC-to-phone service, you'll want to compare rates to those of long-distance services. If you can indeed save significantly, it makes a lot of sense to embrace Internet telephony.
Scott Wharton, VocalTec's ITSP senior market manger, makes it clear that voice-only calling isn't the only benefit of Internet telephony. The future of this technology, he says, lies in the effective combination of audio and video. Using the Net for conference calls will be a no-brainer in the not-too-distant future, according to Wharton, and a shared whiteboard, along with the showing of presentations to clients anywhere in the world, will be a major benefit for small-business owners. With Internet Phone 5.0, users can already share documents over the Net, make changes to them in real time, show videos and more.
But as you might imagine, VocalTec's product line contains much more than the consumer-based Internet Phone. For example, VocalTec's Telephony Gateway Server, working with a PBX network, lets employees in the United States pick up their phones and dial an extension of a co-worker in Israel--directly connecting over the Net. Then there's Atrium with Internet Conference Professional, which lets users share data with up to 150 people over an IP network as well as do multipoint teleconferencing. (For more information on Internet telephony, see "Bytes," June.)
If you've ever been an AOL user, you probably understand the concept of a "buddy list." It's a list of the friends and associates you want to keep track of online. The program alerts you when someone on your list logs on, and if you choose, you can start a real-time dialogue. AOL was one of the first online services to implement buddy lists, and the feature has created many loyal AOL users.
Now the Internet offers the same ability; in some cases, it's designed to work with the original AOL buddy-list system. Although there are many options out there for Net users who want to stay in touch, there are a few stand-outs that deserve mention.
ICQ ("I seek you") from Mirabilis has gained an avid following of more than 11 million users, and it offers much more than just instant messages. With ICQ, you can do both one-on-one and multiparty chats, share documents, use a whiteboard, transfer files and more.
Ding! from Activerse (http://www.activerse.com) is another hot buddy-list program, as is Peoplelink (http://www.peoplelink.com). And AOL has gotten further into the game with its Internet-based AOL Instant Messenger (http://www.aol.com/aim). This product lets you send instant messages to surfers both on the Net and within AOL.
These free programs are all relatively easy to run and simple to download from the Net. You should keep in mind, however, that the people you communicate with must be using the same program. That means you may want to choose a popular one, such as AOL Instant Messenger or ICQ. If you need to communicate with both Mac and Windows users, Ding! is not the answer. There are also privacy issues to consider. For example, Ding! lets you remove your name from other people's buddy lists, and PeopleLink requires you to know someone's e-mail address before it allows you to add them to your list.
The Net is quickly making our world smaller--and communicating in the 21st century is going to be a whole lot different than it was in the 20th century. I can't help but marvel at the ways in which my now-3-year-old daughter will talk to her friends in the future. Do yourself and your company a favor: Don't get left behind.
Cassandra Cavanah is a Los Angeles freelance writer who has reported on the computer industry for nine years.
New and Notable Software
- Update AnyWare: Software programs that have been on your hard drive for a while can be out of date. Similarly, drivers (the programs that help run the hardware attached to your machine) can also get outmoded. That's why there are programs like Update AnyWare from GreenTree Technologies. Update AnyWare will automatically detect out-of-date software or drivers on a PC by profiling the PC to see what's installed and then comparing those versions to the most current versions stored on its database. If updates are available, Update AnyWare lists products or patches that can be downloaded from the Web. Users can also receive automatic e-mail notification of new software updates as soon as they're available. Update AnyWare is available in stores or via http://www.updateanyware.com It costs $29.95 and requires a $19.95 annual renewal fee. Call (800) 257-7708 for more information.
- Virtual Operator: Voice-recognition technology has made great strides in the past few years. See for yourself by checking out the Virtual Operator from Registry Magic, which works in conjunction with your company's telephone system. This call-routing system understands natural speech and routes calls to the correct extensions simply by hearing phrases such as "I'd like to speak to the sales department, please," or "Can you connect me to Mr. Smith?" That means your customers don't have to get lost in the labyrinth of voice mail. The virtual operator handles up to 12 calls at one time; it also works within your organization, letting users say the name of the person they wish to speak with rather than dialing the extension. For more information, call (888) RMAGIC-8 or visit http://www.registrymagic.com
- Area Code Update: If you hadn't noticed, area codes around the country are changing virtually every day. For those of you who have experienced the dreaded "the area code you have dialed has been changed" message, you'll appreciate this program from Information Technology Group. Designed to help manage and maintain accurate records within large databases, Area Code Update scans and replaces outdated North American area codes with accurate ones. There are 45 area code changes scheduled this year alone; with Area Code Update, you'll save the time it takes to update your records and the hassle of redialing out-of-date numbers. A single-user version costs $179; call (877) 228-3283 or visit http://www.areacodeupdate.com for more information.