From the January 1999 issue of Startups

If you have too many computer passwords to remember and are tired of having to come up with new ones every few months, you're not alone. The information age is turning out to be a security nightmare, for both the people who administer corporate networks and those who use them.

But big changes are on the way, and soon your body itself may be your password: your fingerprints, hands, face, the patterns in your retina's blood vessels, the veins in your hand, or maybe just the sound of your voice. Each of these features is unique to every individual, and computers can analyze them to distinguish one person from another. Such biometric technologies, as they're called, have actually been gestating in laboratories for years, but high costs have limited their use mainly to the military and spy agencies. Now, with the plummeting cost of computing power, biometrics is poised for widespread commercial use.

Giving the field a major boost has been PC maker Compaq, which came out with a $99 fingerprint reader for PCs early last year. At that price, companies can start thinking about biometrics for mass use, not just for ultra-secure data centers.

Other technologies are hitting the market as well. Miros offers TrueFacePC, a $59.95 program (available at http://www.miros.com) that identifies people by the shape of their faces. Working with most standard PC video cameras--which now sell for less than $100--the software takes just two seconds to analyze a face and authenticate its owner--assuming it has "seen" that person before. By always working with two views of each face, the program analyzes the depth of a person's facial features to prevent imposters from tricking it with a flat photograph. Another development: Biometric technology developer Keyware Technologies (http://www.keyware.com) and others offer software that verifies people's identities by analyzing their speech.

How fast biometric technology catches on depends on many factors, including cost, convenience and companies' need for improved security. And there are some difficult political issues, too: Will Americans submit to having digitized scans of their fingerprints, retinas, speech and even body odors stored in computers? Only time will tell.


John W. Verity has been writing about technology since the days when 1MB RAM cost $150,000 and was the size of a fridge. Send your questions to John at jverity@mindspring.com

Star Treatment

Ready for software that automatically reads and responds to e-mail from customers? Systems that let service agents send selected Web pages to clients' browsers while speaking with them by phone?

Well, ready or not, all that and more is coming as part of a technological revolution about to hit the world of customer service. For years, businesses have depended on 800 numbers and telephone call centers to connect with customers. But the Internet offers a multitude of new channels and methods for delivering better customer service at a lower cost. More than 24 Internet start-up companies are scrambling to change how people get personalized shopping advice, fix problems with laptops and communicate with companies about their products and services. It's what Forrester Research Inc. calls Teleweb technology.

Certainly the easiest new way to communicate with customers is via e-mail. But some companies now receive 5,000 or more e-mails per day--far more than can be answered personally. Consequently, tech firms such as Kana Communications (http://www.kana.com) have developed programs that scan incoming e-mail, respond automatically if possible, and route unanswered messages to specialists.

When e-mail's not enough, cutting-edge companies are beefing up their Web sites to provide easier access to data and documents. But sometimes, customers may still want to converse with someone in "real time." One method allows an exchange of typed messages--a private online chat room.

Another method: Soundstone.com, an online seller of music CDs, has representatives available during business hours to help visitors choose disks and resolve problems with their orders. Says Kevin Sheehan, president and CEO, "This makes people feel more comfortable with shopping on the Web."

Going even further are companies like MCI (http://www.mci.com). Its system lets an operator speak to Web site visitors and show them selected Web pages.

As technology continues to improve, experts believe the Web will improve how companies handle customer service.

Easy Pieces

Remember the Lincoln Logs and Legos you used to play with as a child? Little did they know, the makers of those modular, snap-together toys were actually preparing you for the next wave of computer software.

It's called component-based programming, and it's about to show up on a corporate intranet near you.

Software makers have finally created setups that allow mere mortals to construct and customize fairly sophisticated programs from sets of prefabricated components. Not that you'll be building your own word processing system any time soon--right now, components are catching on mainly in corporate computing.

A good example is what Silicon Valley start-up AlphaBlox is shipping: Without knowing any programming languages and using only their Web browsers, users can now drag and drop that firm's graphical "blox" to create functionally rich business applications. Each blox (there are more than 20 to work with) is a complex chunk of software that a firm's computer department first has to customize so it can recognize and navigate the company's various databases and analyze data using standardized methods. Besides giving you better access to strategic data, the blox setup is supposed to eliminate the bother of writing a new program every time someone needs a new kind of report.

Component-based programs are catching on all over, thanks largely to plans put forth by Microsoft and Sun Microsystems. Their respective ActiveX and Java Beans architectures define just how programmers should build components that will plug together seamlessly.

Components still can't develop software quickly and accurately, and they don't fit together quite as easily as Lincoln Logs. But they're a big step forward, and you're sure to see more of them as time goes on.

FAQ

Q: I'm way too busy to go out shopping for printer paper, diskettes and other computer supplies. Isn't there a better way?

A: There may be, indeed, and it's as close as your computer. Just get on the Web, and you'll find numerous sites for buying computer supplies. Check Web directories like Snap (http://www.snap.com) and Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com). You'll find many local and regional retailers, as well as national chains and specialty dealers, selling everything from diskettes and paper to toner cartridges for laser printers.

The three biggest chains doing business online are Office Max (http://www.officemax.com), Office Depot (http://www.officedepot.com) and Staples (http://www.staples.com). Each has an extensive online catalog and delivers product orders of $50 or more for free.

As convenient as Web shopping may be, it still pays to shop around. When we looked, a box of 10 PC-formatted Iomega-brand Zip disks ranged from $97.90 to $149.95. The lowest prices for the widest range of supplies--and all kinds of computer gear, too--may be found at New York's J&R Computer World (http://www.jandr.com). Meanwhile, check out BizRate (http://www.bizrate.com) for loads of useful information about the quality and reliability of specific Web merchants.

Contact Sources

AlphaBlox, (888) BLOX-NOW, http://www.alphablox.com

Forrester Research Inc., http://www.forrester.com

SAC Technologies Inc., (702) 798-9777, http://www.sacman.com

Soundstone.com, (617) 576-9306, http://www.soundstone.com