Buried Alive

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This story appears in the June 1998 issue of Startups. Subscribe »

E-mail is both a blessing and a curse. You're hooked on its rapid-fire communication, but you end up drowning in electronic messages. And, as is the case with the paper variety, junk
e-mail threatens to take over your in-box.

Your most important ally in fighting the deluge may be your e-mail software. Many popular software packages, including Lotus' cc:Mail, Microsoft's Outlook 97, Novell's GroupWise, and Qualcomm's Eudora Pro Email 4.0, have built-in tools called "rules" (also called "filters"). These tools let you set up instructions for automatically sorting, organizing and performing actions on both incoming and outgoing messages.

Let's say you get 100 messages per day; half are important, and the rest aren't. You can set up a rule telling your program to pass all incoming messages with the name of your most important clients (in the "From" line) to a separate folder marked "hot," so you can read those messages first. Messages from your bookkeeper could go into a "bookkeeper" folder, and so on. You could also request a delivery receipt or a copy of each message sent to your clients.

Creating a rule isn't difficult: Usually, it involves simply filling out a form with key words. In Eudora, for instance, you can select a box marked "From" and fill in the blank with a name--say, George--to tell the software to flag any messages from George.

On the downside, it takes some practice to get the hang of the rules. They work best with simple things like sender names but not as well on longer strings of text. And they require some forethought. For example, telling the software to apply a rule like "ignore all messages with `offer' in the subject line" (as in a junk-mail "once in a lifetime offer") may not prove to be a good idea if the software also ignores a message headed "job offer,"and you miss out on obtaining a valuable new client. Still, once you get accustomed to it, you can use your e-mail program as an ally in the fight against information overload.


Bronwyn Fryer writes about technology for Newsweek, C/NET and other publications from her office in Santa Cruz, California.

Up To Speed

Take a quick poll of people who have 56.6 Kbps modems, and you'll likely find the responses to be evenly split between people who like them and people who don't. Sure, 56K modems sound great; after all, waiting for Web pages to download with a standard 33.6, 28.8 or--God help you--14.4 modem is about as fun as waiting for water to boil. But before you buy the 56K variety, read the fine print.

The problem is that 56Ks don't give everyone that kind of speed. While many people swear they get great results with a 56K, others barely notice a difference. There are several reasons for this: Sometimes, there's no direct 56K connection between an ISP and a phone company. Other times, noisy lines get in the way. And unless you live in a major urban area, there may be no lines available.

To make matters worse, there's an ongoing argument in the electronic communications industry about what kind of base technology (3Com's x2 vs. Lucent Technologies/Rockwell Semiconductor Systems' K56flex) to use for the 56K standard. That means ISPs have to test both technologies, because they won't work with each other. Many ISPs and other online services are holding field trials of both x2 and K56flex modems in urban areas. Once a standard has been established, there will be more support for 56K modems in less-populated places. The moral of the story? Before you buy, find out whether your ISP and the telephone company support 56K speeds and, if so, which standard they support.

Live Wire

Jason, a 24-year-old salesperson, mans the customer service desk of a special Egghead software store at the company's corporate headquarters in Spokane, Washington. Actually, he doesn't "man" the desk so much as "cartoon" it. He appears as a bearded, professorial-looking egg, with a bubble above him that asks, "May I help you?"

Welcome to the brave new world of online shopping, where live salespeople appear as graphical icons called "avatars." At the Egghead virtual store, people like Jason are on hand from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. to help with purchases, which can be made right at the site. Customers can also explore various rooms, where they can meet with other customers to chat about hardware and software. If they want to talk with a salesperson, they simply type in their questions chat-style.

Egghead created the site in response to online shoppers' demand for assistance before purchasing. Because Egghead is closing its brick-and-mortar stores, the virtual store is likely to see a lot more business. To sneak a peek at the future, check out the Egghead virtual store (http://www.egghead.com), download the plug-in software and chat away.

Going, Going, Gone!

They're fast. They're fun. Online auctions are among the hottest shopping venues, with fabulous deals on everything from antique cars to computers. And there's no shortage of them: Internet Auction List (http://www.usaweb.com/auction.html) lists more than 1,177 sites.

But auctions are also one of the biggest Internet scams going, accounting for more than one-quarter of Internet-related fraud complaints, according to the National Consumer's League (http://www.natlconsumersleague.org/top10net.htm). Complaints range from product misrepresentation to outright take-the-money-and-run schemes. Other auctions play fast and loose, raising prices after the highest bid has come in, for example. Many auctions are legitimate, but even the good ones require research, including reading the rules, warranty information and return policies carefully before jumping into the game. Only do business with a site that posts an address and telephone number. And always pay with a credit card, so you have some recourse if you're ripped off.

Battle Lines

When Netscape decided in January to offer users its Web browser for free, many people welcomed the news. Giving away Navigator--for which the company formerly charged $50--would level the playing field with arch-enemy Microsoft, which gives away its competitive product, Internet Explorer, for free. Now users have a real choice. Or do they?

Essentially, Netscape sees giving away its browser as a way to rally the troops--that is, anyone who prefers Navigator (which runs on all kinds of computers) over Microsoft's Explorer (a Windows-centric product). But in the face of revenue losses and layoffs, we can't help but wonder how long Netscape can hold out against Gates and company, despite Gates' recent required testimony on Capitol Hill. (Congress is investigating whether Microsoft has a monopoly that could stifle innovation in the software industry.)

Why does any of this matter? Browsers are the future of the way we work. It's only a matter of time before most desktop software is browser-enabled and every computer works with a window (or a Netscape, if you will) on the Web.

Edition: December 2016

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