Guru Watch
For the past 10 years, Ann Cavoukian, coauthor with Don Tapscott of Who Knows: Safeguarding Your Privacy in a Networked World (McGraw-Hill, 1997), has been assistant commissioner of the Information and Privacy Commission for the province of Ontario, Canada. Among other things, Cavoukian's commission ensures that the provincial and municipal governments of Ontario don't abuse the data entrusted to them by the public. In Who Knows, she argues that companies should uphold a customer's privacy not only because of a legal or moral obligation but because it makes good business sense. She recently spoke with Inc. Technology about how small companies can protect customer data.

On protecting customers' data:
Most privacy laws in North America apply only to governments and not to the private sector. That means companies must be responsible enough to create their own privacy codes. The most crucial elements of any code are that it clearly state that the company will inform customers of how their personal information could be used, and that it provide customers with a chance to revoke their consent when the information is used for other purposes. In other words, you may sell your customers' names and addresses only if you have informed consent. Once you have defined a policy, make sure you communicate it to your employees via E-mail or intranet and physically post it at cash registers or other open places.

On the benefits of a privacy code:
Businesspeople traditionally rail against the notion of privacy legislation, claiming that it impedes free enterprise. But that's not necessarily true. When Quebec recently extended its privacy laws to the private sector, businesses were not crippled, as many feared. In fact, privacy codes may actually help you gain customer trust and loyalty. Some companies have even found that privacy protection is a cost-reduction tool. Companies often have archaic information practices, and they collect a good deal of information from their customers that they just don't need. A company that begins to scrutinize its information holdings from a privacy perspective may discover that it can save valuable computer processing time and memory. And it might also find that its employees will be more efficient if it doesn't have to collect data that never gets used.

On the fallout from violating privacy:
In the next five years, we are going to see a much more militant group of consumers, who will demand to know how their personal information is used and what sorts of electronic security systems have been installed to protect that data. We are already beginning to see more consumer lawsuits. Consider the consumer in San Diego who sued Computer City. When the buyer paid for his original purchase, he saw the clerk typing his name and address into the computer. When he asked if his name was going to be added to a mailing list, the clerk replied: "No." The man then wrote on the back of his check that he would sue for a particular amount if Computer City violated the agreement not to place his name on any mailing list. When he received mailings from the company, he sued and ultimately won. The judge ruled that the check had been transformed into a contract that the company subsequently violated.

Gimme a Break
Hoping to cash in on all the hype surrounding repetitive stress injury (RSI), Vanity Software Publishing (Toronto, 800-643-2881) developed ErgoBreak for Office. This graphically pleasing program reminds you periodically to quit pounding on the keyboard and then leads you through 20 stretching exercises aimed at combatting RSI.

But while ErgoBreak claims to entertain, it does little more than take you through the motions--and boring motions at that. At preset intervals, one of five cartoon characters pops up under the words, "Watch me first." The guide then leads you through exercises designed to stretch out body parts that have ostensibly gone numb from repetitive actions, such as mouse maneuvering. One such exercise is the "wrist nod," wherein you're asked to clasp your hands behind your head and stick out your chest. If you're feeling really daring, you might try the peek-a-boo exercise, as I like to call it. This exercise involves covering your eyes with your hands for 20 seconds, and then uncovering them. Yes, that's it.

Despite the fact that I obsess over RSI as much as the next person, I think I'll stick to my regular coffee breaks to fight it. During these breaks, I get up from my chair (great for the legs). Then I put on my coat (this stretches the arms) and head outside (sunlight is great for soothing monitor-weary eyes). I proceed to walk to the local coffee shop (by now I'm into heavy aerobic exercise) and get a grande iced mocha (stirring the ice really loosens the wrist). By the time I return, I've done my part to fight RSI and gotten a little buzz (the entertaining part of the break). As cute as ErgoBreak's cartoon characters are, I'll take the $3.49 iced mocha break over the $47 ErgoBreak anytime. --Sarah Schafer

Plugged in to the Peter Principle
Want to get back at your IT people for all the frustration they've caused you? It's easy. Promote them.

According to Mark Brewer, management consultant for Fred Pryor Seminars Inc., in Shawnee Mission, Kans., an international provider of one-day business seminars, climbing the company ladder gives most IT managers a bad case of vertigo. Technical people, says Brewer, aren't risk-takers by nature. Put them in a management position and they're likely to become paralyzed with indecision. All their training has conditioned them to analyze problems and act only when they're certain of a solution. This accounts for the dreaded IT-department response, "No, we can't do that," when someone wants to try, say, a new E-mail package.

But before taking your IT personnel to task, you might evaluate their work environment. Small companies are particularly difficult places for IT folks, says Brewer. That's because of scenarios like these: The owner hands the IT department a long menu of functions he or she wants performed and then allocates a pathetically inadequate amount of money for the work. Or every person in the company brings in his or her own computer and software and expects the IT person to tie the entire mish-mash together. "MIS people are always on the losing side," says Brewer. Which might explain the higher-than-average recidivism rate among technical people, many of whom prefer to return to their previous jobs than struggle along in management.

Brewer sees thousands of despondent IT workers in the seminars he gives to teach management skills to technical people. In fact, he estimates 40% of them are there of their own volition, trying to find the strength to continue in their upwardly mobile careers. "They miss the good old days," he notes. --S.S.

Fax-Finding Mission
Looking to save money on long-distance faxing? You might want to try the Internet.

The fax-service provider FaxSav (800-828-7115), which is headquartered in Edison, N.J., claims that you can save up to 50% per fax by sending your international missives through its network. (There are also savings on domestic faxes, but they're not as great.) The software is free--you just download it from the company's Web site--and although prices depend on destination, faxes sent to the United States from overseas cost at most 15 cents a page.

FaxSav works from any E-mail program or Windows application (you can also use a regular fax machine if you have a FaxSav connector, which the company provides free with the service). For example, if you're working in Microsoft Word and want to send the document as a fax, you just click on the Print command as though you were printing the document, and then choose the FaxSav option. A little bar at the top of your page shows you the progress of the fax; if there's a connection problem or the number is busy, FaxSav will automatically retry the number.

With the average small company spending $400 a month on faxing, you've got nothing to lose but your long-distance phone bill. --S. S.

Ether O'er
For most of us, wireless computing is still a remote option. But that might not be the case for long.

AirMedia (800-Air-Media), a division of Ex Machina Inc., located in Newport Beach, Calif., recently took the line out of on-line with its latest release, a $99 software program that comes packaged with a wireless device--a small pyramid-shaped antenna that attaches to your computer via the serial port. Once the system is installed, AirMedia intermittently broadcasts to your computer the news and information it's been gathering on its Internet server from sources like Reuters and SportsLine USA.

To get you hooked, the company offers a year of free use. After that, price ranges from $5.95 to $9.95 a month, depending on the services you select. If you happen to use one of the E-mail service providers that AirMedia has partnered with--like Compuserve or EarthLink Network--you can even receive E-mail alerts through the ether. Of course, like any radio, the AirMedia system only receives information. So you probably won't want to cancel your phone service quite yet. --J. M.

Block Buster
Worried about how your employees spend their time on-line? Just make sure you look before you leap onto the blocking-software bandwagon. Some of the packages that restrict access to certain on-line material may censor more than you think.

To find out which products ban what, go to the site of those you're considering (most publish a list of criteria) or call the manufacturer and ask. While most companies won't give out a roster of banned sites, they will tell you how they decide which sites to ax. Stay away from the all-or-nothing products, that is, those that require you to disable the entire program in order to have access to anything on their verboten list. With topics as broad as "computer hacking," these lists can keep your employees from important information. One last tip, from the corporate side: To keep your own site from getting blacklisted, make sure your Internet service provider (ISP) isn't in trouble with any blocking software. In some rare instances, an entire ISP can be banned. --S.S.

Extra! Extra!
In the tumultuous Internet industry, new lingo develops even faster than new software. The latest addition to the evolving lexicon: "extranet"--as in "extraterrestrial." Like its intranet cousin, the extranet can be defined as a Web server for sharing documents and sending E-mail. The big difference: You don't own and maintain the server, and you don't design the Web pages. You leave both to an outside party.

HotOffice Technologies Inc. (888-4-HotOffice), a developer of Internet technology for small businesses, in Boca Raton, Fla., is one of those providers. Starting at $24.95 per user per month, HotOffice's system lets each user upload 15 MB of information each month (each additional MB costs $1). You could use the HotOffice server to store anything from a presentation your employees need to access from the road to spreadsheets you plan to collaborate on in real time.

The service throws in a business news feed, an electronic bulletin board for your company, and private chat rooms in the bargain. --J.M.

A True Visionary
Jim Misener might be blind, but that doesn't mean he can't spot a market niche.

Eight years ago, Misener got into what he calls the "adaptive-technology business." Acting as a consultant, he showed blind and low-vision clients how to make technology more user-friendly. Over the years, Misener grew increasingly frustrated with how little product information there was for the visually impaired and how difficult it was to find products they could use. No wonder the unemployment rate for the blind was a staggering 80%, he thought. How could people acquire up-to-date skills when they couldn't even use the latest technology? So in 1994, with the help of a Small Business Association loan, Misener set up a store geared toward helping the blind get state-of-the-art equipment and training.

From the start, Misener stocked Beyond Sight Inc., in Littleton, Colo., with high-end products aimed at putting visually impaired people back into the workforce. Products like Arkenstone's Open Book, which actually reads aloud printed materials placed on its surface, and Blazie Engineering's Braille 'N Speak, a four-by-six-inch transcriber with a Braille keyboard, a talking word processor, and a talking scheduler.

Of course, the visually impaired aren't Misener's only customers. He also sells to potential employers. Misener spends a good deal of his time convincing employers that it's just as easy to hook an adaptive technology like a Braille printer to a network as a regular one. And he's found that with a little nudge from the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are usually willing to give the adaptive technology a try.

Since he opened Beyond Sight two years ago, Misener's revenues have grown to $1.2 million. He recently signed a deal to set up his first franchise store and is searching for the best location. Because of his mission to lower the unemployment rate for the blind, Misener hopes he can find visually impaired owners for the franchises. That rate, he notes, is now almost 10% lower than it was when he got into the adaptive-technology business--a drop he'd like to think he had something to do with. But he knows there's still a long way to go. --S.S.

Things We Love
Jim Dieroff likes things simple. When he travels to Europe on business, he rarely even changes the time on his watch. He can't be bothered fussing with the dial. Instead, he whips out a miniature 5-ounce travel alarm clock, flips open the display, and begins speaking into a small microphone.

After a number of bad experiences (thanks to forgotten wake-up calls and broken hotel alarm clocks), Dieroff, president and CEO of Connaissance Corp., a $2-million consulting, continuing-education, and product-marketing business for dental professionals, in Fort Collins, Colo., was determined to find an easy-to-use timepiece that he could take on the road. Now, using the Voice Clock, made by Voice It Worldwide Inc., also in Fort Collins ($75, exclusively at Brookstone, 800-846-3000), Dieroff just presses a button and then speaks a command. For example, to set the alarm for the morning, he need only push a few buttons and announce what time he'd like to be roused; the clock then announces the time selected to let him know it's registered. "I've freaked people out on planes because they can't figure out where the heck the voice is coming from," says Dieroff.

The only problem is, the clock may be too simple to use. After all, isn't an alarm supposed to make it difficult to sleep? With the Voice Clock, all you have to do to catch a few more zzz's is utter the word "snooze." Acknowledging a potential problem, the manufacturer has designed the clock alarm to automatically increase in volume after every snooze interlude.

Although Dieroff originally bought the clock just for travel, he now carries it with him everywhere. He finds it especially useful at corporate meetings, where a nonchalant glance at a watch can seem rude and inappropriate. "I just set the clock out in front of me on the conference table," explains Dieroff, "and that way I never get in trouble for looking at my watch. You remember when George Bush looked at his watch during the debates back in '92, don't you?" --J.M.