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HARDWARE

Blast In, Write On, Litigate Out

Three CEOs each review a new software package.
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New software packages allow you to automate your handwriting, redirect your lawyer, and decimate a virtual battle tank. Our CEO reviewers judge their worth

Software: PenFont, from Signature Software Inc., Hood River, Ore. (800-925-8840, price $49.95), a computer font of your own handwriting

Reviewer: Judy Wicks, president of $3.6-million White Dog Enterprises, in Philadelphia, which includes the 12-year-old White Dog Cafe, a restaurant serving contemporary American cuisine, and the Black Cat, a crafts store

PenFont represents a binary oxymoron: it allows you to use technology to appear low-tech. A computer font of your handwriting, it provides the ease and advantages of word processing -- alignment of lines, centering and editing capabilities, and varied type sizes -- and the personal touch of your own lettering. Your monitor becomes your paper and the keyboard a pen whose point width can range from the bluntness of a felt-tipped marker to the fine line of a rapidograph -- all with the click of a mouse.

The software's appropriate wherever your own handwriting will do. In the restaurant business, freshness is everything. For years at White Dog we've been doing our menus on the computer every day, but the typeset copy lacks a sense of immediacy. The psychology just isn't right. Daily specials in your own handwriting communicate fish just caught and lamb just slaughtered. Standard type makes it look as if you've been serving the same hazelnut trout for the past six months. We're forever changing typefaces in an attempt to give our menus a unique look, but new typefaces catch on fast, and soon everyone in the business seems to be using the same one.

PenFont solves those problems, giving you the best of both worlds: up-to-the-minute style that can't be copied. We plan to send Signature a sample form in the handwriting of my chef and partner, Kevin von Klause, so he can not only continue to create the menus each day but also pen them in his own hand. It's ironic. When we first opened the restaurant, I handwrote the menus because we couldn't afford a computer. Now we've come full circle: we're choosing to spend money on automation so we can look more homegrown.

Other applications of the software include personal memos, bulletin-board postings, and invitations to staff parties. It's also great for letters to customers. People frequently write to say how much they enjoyed an evening at the cafe, or they might drop me a note to thank me for something, like returning a raincoat. I respond personally to such mail with a handwritten card, and PenFont allows me to continue the tradition with ease. More professional missives -- newsletters or announcements of special events -- don't fare as well, precisely because they call for a more authoritative tone.

Technically, the program does a remarkable job of spacing the letters of each word so they don't bang into one another or leave gaps akin to missing front teeth. It improves writing quality -- each stroke is finer and each letter blotchless and easier to read. And it saves you the time of reprinting if you see a mistake. You can simply grab a pen, and ink in the correction the old-fashioned way.

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Software: LegalPoint, from Teneron Corp., Overland Park, Kan. (800-529-5669, price $99), a compendium of legal documents and information for small businesses

Reviewer: Pamela Kelley, president of $5-million Rue de France, a 30-employee manufacturer and mail-order-catalog distributor of imported-lace window treatments in Newport, R.I., and a lawyer with the Rhode Island firm of Miller, Scott, Howe & Kelley

If your eyes glaze over at the prospect of reading about the law, this software is not for you. But if you're curious enough to wonder why a particular clause must be in a will or what the standards are for a covenant not to compete, or if you've always yearned to understand the bulk sales law, LegalPoint may be your key to some juristic independence.

The program -- which contains 82 legal documents grouped into subject categories such as sales and marketing, personnel and employment, corporate technology, and purchase and sale of goods -- functions as a complete and easily accessible library of business law. Each document is set up as a fill-in form whose "decision points," or blanks, are linked to on-line windows packed with legal tips and background information about, say, why a paragraph is included or a question is being asked. For example, when you click to fill in your corporate name on the certificate of incorporation, a window opens to suggest that you call the secretary of state's office to reserve your chosen moniker. And the commercial-lease form gives rise to a roster of zoning restrictions and land-use rules that you should check with local officials.

The package has something for every wanna-be lawyer, from security agreements and a talent-model release to a beta-test agreement. I asked my law partners to review 10 of the documents, and we agreed: they were carefully drafted and covered frequently encountered situations. The drawback of such forms is that they can't accommodate the nonstandard entanglement. For instance, when two founders draft a partnership agreement, they're typically in the honeymoon stage and anticipate only positive problems, such as how to divide the profits. But will the agreement be sufficient when divorce is imminent?

The dilemma highlights the intentions of LegalPoint's authors: the product is intended to supplement, not to supplant, your use of a good lawyer, and they encourage participants to establish a relationship with one. Both on-screen and in the user's guide they provide ways to analyze various situations to determine when you need professional help, and they suggest that you run all LegalPoint-drafted documents past a member of the bar. My partners said they'd have no problem with perusing such a document but doubted that much of their time would be saved: they'd still have to carefully review the background of the case. Still, you're likely to see some reduction in legal fees, since you'll be better informed and able to deal more efficiently with your lawyer.

Chances are LegalPoint will appeal most to those who'd rather not rely on a lawyer at all. Ever. And though I'm greatly sympathetic to that view (I went to law school to avoid having to hire a lawyer), I wonder how many businesspeople have the time to master the minutiae of the computer documentation, let alone of a legal brief.

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Software: Spectre VR, from Velocity, San Francisco (800-VLOCITY, price $59.95), an action-strategy battle game set in cyberspace -- for one to eight players

Reviewer: Phil Reed, president of $7-million SkyStar Aircraft Corp., a manufacturer of the Kitfox family of kit aircraft in Nampa, Idaho

The installation of Spectre VR on our server was fairly straightforward. However, the game's requirement for VGA equipment at workstations limited the participants to those few with appropriate configurations: only a quarter of our 40 stations are so equipped, and most of those are in the engineering department, where playing catch-up on the project that was supposed to be finished last month was the only game allowed.

It took a while to get things working -- or at least for us illiterates to confirm that things were working as they should. As battle-tank commanders, most of us found ourselves continually dead and buried while we learned that navigating tanks through cyberspace is indeed more challenging than answering E-mail. We noticed right away that the young among us were considerably quicker to grasp the intricacies of the missions, tended to last longer, and suffered much lower frustration levels. To me, as an observer looking over the shoulder of one of our more decorated commanders, Spectre VR recalled the early Atari, given its rudimentary stick graphics and relatively slow and jerky responses to movement commands -- though it does provide virtual-reality-style 3D.

The game has a number of challenges -- flying hunter-killers, mines, automatic gun turrets, slicers, rovers, and more -- and the enemy seems to have an uncanny ability to learn from experience. But the real challenge for our team was how to remain interested in the game itself. Our commanders grew impatient with the relatively clumsy interface a keyboard provides. (A good joystick setup would definitely add minutes to the average commander's life span and keep interest from perishing quickly as well.) While the graphics provide players with adequate information to do battle, they lack the fascination of those incorporated into some of the CD-ROM-based adventure games. Acid, ice, and other environmental hazards appear as colored patches moving about, but it takes a lot of imagination to translate those images into life-threatening, adrenaline-pumping situations.

All told, Spectre VR struck us as a sketch or a prototype of something that would someday be a full-blown game with graphics and sound. But without a good physical interface (read: joystick) and only marginal sensory interfaces (read: graphics and sound), the enticement of the mental battle was not enough to keep the interest of our real-life, battle-wary (not -weary) commanders at high levels.




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