New software packages target brainstormers, paper pushers, and road warriors. Here's how our reviewers rate them
Co-motion Lite, from Bittco Solutions Ltd., Ardrossan, Alberta, Canada (800-265-2726; firstname.lastname@example.org; $78 for 10 users; $2,000 for custom version), group-brainstorming software for use over the Internet
Pat Heffernan, copresident of Marketing Partners Inc., a three-year-old research, marketing, and public-relations firm in Burlington, Vt.
A SLIP or PPP Internet connection; a Macintosh computer; System 7; 1 MB RAM
At Marketing Partners we regularly run what we call "marketing brain trusts" for our clients. Say a natural-foods seller wants to improve the shelf appeal of its product. We might sit down with a natural-foods broker, a natural-foods retailer, and an FDA-knowledgeable package designer to think up new strategies. The upside of the sessions is that a wealth of invaluable information is produced in one fell swoop. The downside is that it takes a tremendous amount of time to coordinate the meetings and travel costs skyrocket when you have to bring distant specialists to a central location. So we were curious to see if a virtual version of one of those meetings would enhance the advantages and minimize the disadvantages.
We decided to use Co-motion Lite for Autumn Harp Inc., a client at a marketing crossroads. A manufacturer of natural, petrochemical-free skin-care products based in Bristol, Vt., Autumn Harp has suddenly broken out of its niche market -- health-food stores -- with its Un-Petroleum brand of lip-care products. The formerly tiny company now has to get its message across to general audiences in chains like Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and CVS. Hence the central question on our screen: "What are the key messages for AHarp & Un-Petroleum?"
We set a date and a time for the talk, and arranged for Autumn Harp's brand manager, marketing director, CEO, and advertising manager to contribute. The participants had to install the software, dial up their usual Internet access provider, launch the application, and select "link" at the predetermined time to connect with the host location. All participants had a view of the discussion-session window, so they could see the ideas as they were being posted. To comment on an idea, they merely double-clicked on it and a window opened, inviting responses. Icons such as a bull's-eye to indicate a main point helped them move through the discussion. All contributions were anonymous. And at any point users could rank the ideas on a scale from 1 to 100, save the session, or produce a variety of reports.
The program accelerated the brainstorming process by sharpening our concentration and our thoughts. The result? An enormous number of ideas in a one-hour session. The anonymity granted by the software liberated our thinking. Our client appreciated the immediacy of an attractive report with ranked ideas, average score per idea, standard deviation, and comments. The software gave new life to an otherwise draining and costly task.* * *
PaperMaster, from DocuMagix Inc., San Jose, Calif. (800-362-8624; $99), a paper filing, faxing, and copying system
William Floyd, executive vice-president of Investors Financial Group Inc., a $30-million financial-services provider based in Atlanta
386 or higher IBM-compatible PC; 8MB RAM and 4MB swap file; DOS 3.1 (or higher) and Windows 3.1 or 3.11; a mouse; TWAIN or ISIS compliant scanner
My industry lives on the consumption of timberland, so 10 years ago, when I was toying with my first computer, I couldn't wait till everything went digital and I could do away with paper. Somewhere along the way, however, I took a wrong turn, because the very technology that was supposed to make my life easier made it more cluttered. Now at the push of a button, I can generate reams of paper memos, paper letters, and paper reports to show how productive I am.
To save myself from drowning, about a year ago I purchased an inexpensive imaging system for the office that allows us to scan almost everything into our computers. The catch is the documents can't be filed unless we first convert them, page by page, from images into graphic files. They just sit there in a virtual pile.
Enter PaperMaster, a program for filing, organizing, and retrieving documents on-line. Simple to install, it has an attractive, intuitive visual interface that offers considerable flexibility in constructing drawers and folders for easy filing. But what makes PaperMaster unique is its search, AutoFiling, and direct-printing features.
If, for example, I want to file a document noting a change in the commission schedule of Pacific Mutual, an insurance company our representatives sometimes recommend clients do business with, I simply scan in the document on a TWAIN or ISIS compliant scanner and enter a "store" command. The program's optical-character-recognition tool automatically kicks in and draws up a thumbnail sketch of the words in the document, including those I've added as annotations to the text. Here the list might include key phrases like "Pacific Mutual" and "commission schedule" from the original or cross-references such as "broadcast fax," if I've noted on the document that we should send a broadcast fax to everyone doing transactions with the company. Then when it's time to retrieve the schedule, I can find it in a snap by title, by text content, or by my own asides.
Combine that organize-and-search approach with the AutoFiling feature, and there's little left for a person to do. AutoFiling works this way: as you scan in a page, it looks for folders containing similar documents by category -- policies, receipts, correspondence -- or ones with similar layouts and suggests where the new document should be filed.
PaperMaster is also a wonderful tool for finding documents while traveling: the file cabinets save me considerable connect time when I'm trying to find something I filed six months ago that will help me close my next business deal.* * *
AnyPlace, from Relay Technology Inc., Vienna, Va. (800-795-8674; email@example.com; $199), software to access and update files, anytime, from anywhere
David Abrahamson, a major in the U.S. Army stationed at Camp Zama, near Yokohama, Japan
386; 4MB RAM (8MB recommended); Windows 3.1 or Windows for Workgroups 3.11, enhanced mode only; DOS 5.0; Hayes-compatible and/or null modem; a pointing device
I'm a road warrior. Though the nature of my travels might seem off the beaten track -- my idea of a commute is helicoptering into downtown Tokyo, and I've jumped out of more planes than most people have flown in -- my on-the-road computing needs are identical to those of the average business manager. I need to tie my laptop into the PCs at my office to pull down files or make changes to the files there.
Like most road warriors, I have limited amounts of time and money to invest in that endeavor. I'd love software that automatically dials up my office PC, finds the file I need wherever it's stored, performs the upload/download function, and disconnects -- automatically and during cheap phone-rate times. With synchronizing remote software like AnyPlace, users should be able to do this without knowing how the network is configured or which directory contains the right file -- and without needing to baby-sit their laptops until after 11 p.m. They could modify their report off-line, give AnyPlace instructions about when they want the new version uploaded and other files downloaded, head for a well-deserved martini, and return to an accomplished task.
Conventional remote-access packages require you to dial up the office PC manually, navigate through networks and directories to the right file, and then copy your new version over the old one. If you want to check someone else's report, you have to go to that worker's electronic location.
So AnyPlace should be a welcome addition to any road warrior's armory -- if it worked well and were easy to set up. I found the operation an excruciating Parris Island-like obstacle-course experience that resulted in only partial success.
I found the process of "mapping" the files and directories I wanted to manipulate on the road to be an exercise in frustration. The server repeatedly listed its C: drive as unmappable on the client screen (and refused to map it), while the server reported C: as being mapped. Undaunted, I mapped the networks -- but found it impossible to locate the few files that I wanted to introduce to my laptop. Later, when I canceled the mapping of a particularly large server in midstream, AnyPlace unmapped the partial work it had just accomplished instead of leaving me to sort through the partial product.
Following a total reboot of both client and server, I attempted another mapping action that again met with failure. While the server screen showed an "internal application error" message, the client went merrily on with the standard mapping screen. So I disconnected and retried, for yet another failure. Exit the program and reboot? Sorry. "Task in progress -- unable to shut down." Exit Windows with AnyPlace still running? Sorry again. Same answer. Off went the computer.
The concept is valid. The need is there. The tool is just not adequate.
Personally, I will forgo the theoretical practicality of AnyPlace for the right to flexibly control my office PC. I'll just copy the new version of my report on top of the old version and locate the updated files that I want. It will take longer, but it will work -- each and every time. And I never really liked martinis, anyway.