Other than hearing "the check's in the mail," nothing is as frustrating as having computer problems in the middle of a deadline. Worse, the good old days of free telephone technical support are going the way of the dinosaur. Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to free yourself from computer conundrums.
Assuming your modem is working, your first self-help stop should be your manufacturer's Web site, where you can usually find technical tips, downloadable fixes, updates and answers to frequently asked questions. If you prefer more personal, patient handholding, consider Intel's AnswerExpress Support Suite (http://www.answerexpress.com), a combination software package and Internet service that costs $50 for the first three months and $14.95 per month thereafter. You can phone or e-mail questions to a live specialist who will call you back in 10 minutes or less (Intel claims to support more than 200 software applications). The package also includes an automatic virus-protection service, an online "Answer Library" that provides tips, and data backup of up to 100MB to a distant Intel server. If you don't need all these services, you can sign up for just the virus- protection service, Answer Library and data backup for $6 per month.
Finally, consider purchasing a product such as CyberMedia's (http://www.cybermedia.com) $40 First Aid 98, which automatically detects and fixes more than 10,000 configuration problems, warns you about developing hardware troubles, and searches the Internet for fixes. The investment is likely worth it; after all, you'll probably save yourself from having to buy a weekly supply of aspirin for those computer-induced headaches.
Bronwyn Fryer writes about technology for Newsweek, C/NET and other publications from her office in Santa Cruz, California.
Site To See
Talk about a site for sore eyes. In the old days, an entrepreneur had to spend hours at the local library to find a fraction of the information available at the Small Business Resource Center (a href=http://www.webcom.com/seaquest/sbrc/welcome.html>http://www.webcom.com/seaquest/sbrc/welcome.html).
Arguably one of the best Web sites for small businesses, the site contains all kinds of reports that offer advice, such as how to write the dreaded business plan or how to deal with taxes. There's also a catalog of books, tapes and courses.
One of the most useful features is a huge list of links to other sites, including the SBA Web server and the National Association for the Self-Employed. With friends like this, you just can't lose.
When someone sets up a link from their site to yours, they may not always be doing it to benefit you. Fraudsters or competitors can link to your site and hurt your company's image; if someone decides to link, say, a porn site to yours, you're not likely to know it. And it certainly won't do much for the image you want to project.
There are two ways to deal with this problem. You can contract with your Web site designer or ISP to write a script that automatically notifies you when another site gets linked to yours. Alternatively, you can purchase a system called MarkWatch from Dayton, Ohio, systems engineering and management firm Modern Technologies Corp. (http://www.markwatch.com). Once a week, MarkWatch sends you a report that shows you all the Web sites, bulletin boards, Usenet groups and companies that are linking to your site. It tells you who is linking to your site and why, and where the link is.
The service is pretty pricey--$1,195 annually--but probably costs less than a custom-coding job, and you get the report in the deal. If you value your image, it's something to think about.
Pick up any business magazine these days, and you're likely to run across an article on the wonders of e-commerce. We all hear about smaller companies making use of the Net to reach a wide market with a presence as hefty as that of General Motors and IBM. And Net-preneurs are doing a good amount of business: According to a 1997 study conducted by research firm Jupiter Communications, the online shopping market is expected to take in $37.5 billion in 2002, up from $706 million in 1996.
E-commerce hasn't lived up to its potential, however, largely due to worries about privacy. Many consumers are concerned that their credit card or other personal information will be stolen, shared or misused. On May 13th, when the White House and e-commerce industry muckety-mucks gathered for a two-day conference about Net privacy, companies discussed their efforts to protect online consumers' private information. But a solution is still a long way off. Until the standards, laws and consensus get spelled out, it's in entrepreneurs' best interest to learn all they can about privacy issues, to post clear privacy policies on the home pages of their Web sites, and to make their voices heard. After all, if we don't regulate ourselves, someone else will.
Matter of Fax
If you don't have a fax machine or even a fax modem in your computer, you can still send a fax. A cool $49.95 Windows 95 product from Alpha Software Corp. called ExpressFax lets you do hands-free faxing from the Internet.
Here's how it works: After you've written a document containing the recipient's name and fax number, you "print" it to ExpressFax, press "send," and the document is sent over the Internet to a server, just as if it were an e-mail message. If the recipient's line is busy, the server keeps trying and tells you when the fax goes through successfully.
The really good news is that you don't have to worry about trying to get the fax through or tying up your PC while you're waiting for the fax modem to work. You can even fax to a long distribution list, send multiple types of documents in a single fax, and store frequently called contact names and fax numbers. To order, visit http://www.alphasoftware.com or call (800) 451-1018, ext. 117.