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Bulletin Board

A collection of 11 short articles on technology. Topics include how a Web site can be bad for business, different types of laptop cases, incorporating online, and handheld scanners.
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The Sad Hatter
Web-site marketers should take the same oath doctors do: First, do no harm. It's an oath Do Rags Inc. has broken, with a year-old site for its line of hats. The $2.4-million company, in Hewitt, Tex., is all about fun: products include the Viking, the Yak, and the Bonehead. But Do Rags made the fatal mistake of relying on visitors to maintain its site's liveliness, and they have not obliged. As a result, the site feels like a summer camp where the counselors are still trying to lead a sing-along long after the kids have gone back to their tents to play cards.

It's tough to pick the most depressing feature of www.mentalgear.com. Possibly it's the contests, one to design a "mental hat" and the other to take a picture of someone wearing one. Do Rags promises to name one winner for each contest each month. As of October there was one design winner posted for January and one design winner for February. No photo winners posted at all.

The contests get stiff competition from the site's chat boards. In October there were five "conferences" mustering a total of three messages among them. The calendar of events was completely blank. Some of the hats displayed were from a discontinued catalog.

"These concepts should have turned the site into Grand Central Station. Instead it looks like a graveyard," admits Do Rags CEO and founder Alan Wills. "It's totally against our culture and marketing image." Wills says the problem is that Do Rags budgeted $5,000 for the site and spent all that money up front to hire a Web-design firm, leaving zero for maintenance.

"We don't see it, so we don't think about it a lot," Wills admits. "That's terrible because lots of people are seeing it and aren't getting the most positive image of our company." As a result, Do Rags' image-boosting tactic has in fact become a liability--a kind of negative advertising.

Wills plans to eliminate some of the fancier stuff and possibly start maintaining the site himself "as a hobby." "We should display the products, tell something about the company, let people download our catalog, and maybe have a very simple ordering system," he says. "I think if we do that, then people will say, 'Hey, they've got a nice little site." --Leigh Buchanan


The Walls Have Ears of Corn
Supermarkets aren't shy about advertising: product ads are plastered in windows, on shopping carts, and on receipts. But often the largest expanse of potential advertising space--the walls--is left bare.

Schnuck Markets is changing that. The St. Louis-based chain is demonstrating a service that displays large digital advertisements for everything from American cheese to lottery tickets on full-color, high-resolution screens on store walls.

The concept comes from WOW|media (800-829-7270), which sends ads over ISDN lines to site-supervisor Apple computers at 10 Schnuck locations. The ads arrive at five-second intervals; the supervisor machines then channel the images to Fujitsu Corp. Plasmavision 42-inch screens over wireless Ethernet connections. Advertisers' fees pay for both the service and the screens, so the markets get everything gratis.

Although most ads are for national branded products, the network can also deliver regional or even store-specific ads and information. -- Kimberly S. Johnson


Case Studies
Laptop schleppers are a demanding lot. While Silicon Valley engineers rack their brains to create a better, faster mobile computer, their customers are more concerned with how to carry it around. "People don't get opinionated about their track balls or surge protectors, but they have peculiar and strong opinions about computer cases," says Glenn Rodgers, a designer and developer of computer accessories for Kensington Microware Ltd., in San Mateo, Calif.

Gone are the days of the slim, black cordovan zipper case. Today consumers invariably want a bag that counteracts the laws of physics by being protective and lightweight but large enough to hold all their accessories. "I've never been able to win on that one," Rodgers laments.

But Rodgers's company does have a spill-proof solution for maladroit users threatened by an errant coffee cup. The Kensington Sports Notebook Wetsuit (800-535-4242, www.kensington.com, $49.95) is a form-fitting neoprene sleeve that protects computers from spills, scratches, and other mishaps. No, you can't take it diving.

David Gilson, a sales representative for a Vancouver, B.C., food wholesaler, wanted a case that was large enough for his files but that didn't require acres of desktop space to unpack. His search led him to the Legtop Podeum Pro, from Rach Inc. (360-384-4111, www.podeum.com, $99.95), which he now carries around "almost constantly."

The Podeum Pro is both carrying case and portable work surface: the base of the case is a nonslip platform that fastens around the user's leg. That setup holds the computer in place, which is key: last year insurers paid out close to $300 million for laptops that met their makers sliding off users' knees, according to Chris Stirling, vice -president of Rach.

For those leery of theft, designers try to make cases look like they contain anything but laptops. Manufacturers have developed knapsacks (popular in dressed-down Silicon Valley), satchels, and wheelie cases that look like flight-attendant bags and act like mobile offices. "I even saw one person with a laptop that was stuffed in a paper shopping bag," Rodgers says. --Emily Esterson


Bookmarks
You're setting up a home business and need E-mail. The obvious thing to do is call your local ISP, where you can get TCP/IP to send your data packets over twisted pair.

Obvious to some anyway. But the rest of us need a little help deciphering the linguistic goo that passes for technical vocabulary. Yes, there are books on the subject, but they obsolesce as quickly as technology itself, and in many cases the definitions they offer need definitions.

Whatis.com, an on-line technical dictionary and Internet tour guide, is a far better place to get the straight dope on such unfathomables as defragmenters and neural networks. The clearly defined terms are arranged alphabetically and within categories (for example, New Technology and Graphic Design). You can spend hours roaming from frame to frame, using the links within each definition to move from mail bomb to spamming to an article on how to keep yourself spam-free.

If becoming fluent in techno-lese is your goal, you'll want to check the site every day for its featured word (that's easy to do if you take the site's advice and make Whatis.com your browser's home page). And for those who don't want to feel alone in their ignorance, each week Whatis.com reports its 15 most requested definitions. --Michelle Keyo


Seeing Is Relieving
There are times when pinpointing a computer problem can be as time-consuming as fixing it. But not at Restaurant Consulting Services (RCS 3), a $1.9-million information-technology consulting company in Danvers, Mass. When a client calls to complain about a database, senior Oracle database administrator Darrin Leboeuf pulls up one screen, views one picture, and instantly knows what's eating it.

That's because RCS 3 is using Q Diagnostic Center from Savant Corp. (800-956-9541), software that combines information for up to 70 screens in a graphical format. When a restaurant phones in a problem, Leboeuf can access a real-time picture of that client's database, with color and animation. For example, for a performance problem, the screen might show a funnel. If the neck of the funnel turns yellow, Leboeuf knows that too many people are trying to access the database simultaneously. If it's red, there's a serious traffic jam.

At a glance Leboeuf can tell how much memory is available and how the database is performing compared with historical norms. "It's a quick damage-control tool," he says. --Robyn Taylor Parets


Look Ma, No VANs!
Electronic data interchange (EDI) has long been the domain of big companies using value added networks (VANs). But a recent study found that the majority of small companies doing Internet commerce are conducting EDI. The reason? Efficiency--plus public networks are way cheaper than VANs.

Size of Companies
Conducting E-Commerce
% of Those
Companies Using EDI
1 to 49 employees 71%
50 to 99 employees 15%
100 to 499 employees 11%
500+ employees 3%

Source: Computer Intelligence.


Getting Inc.
On August 16, Greenwich Consulting Group Inc. held its first board meeting--at Yankee Stadium. The two founding members of the strategic-planning and telecommunications consulting firm typed their minutes into a laptop while below them the Texas Rangers tromped the Yankees, 8 to 5. The event was both a way of getting down to work and a celebration: the company had incorporated just one week earlier, and the process had been silken smooth.

Vice-president Christopher Simmons had anticipated spending a lot of time investigating the requirements of incorporating in Connecticut, researching and reserving a company name, and preparing and filing a certificate of incorporation. Instead he turned to one of a growing number of incorporating-service Web sites that perform all those tasks on-line. "We didn't want to mess around, so I got right on the Web," says Simmons.

After visiting three or four sites, Simmons chose Corporate Agents Inc. It took him 10 minutes to fill out the application and enter his credit-card number. Corporate Agents did the rest, chiefly reserving the company name and preparing and filing the certificate of incorporation. About a week later he had his company's official incorporation certificate in hand.

All told, incorporating on-line cost Greenwich about $550, $300 of which went--via Corporate Agents--to the secretary of state's office. The service fee was $99; Simmons also spent $60 for a corporate kit, $30 for a book on corporate affairs, and $60 for rush service.

"Incorporating on-line allows people to access information immediately and fill out applications whenever it's convenient," says Sid Garnett, vice-president of American Incorporators Ltd. (www.ailcorp.com), which now serves about 20% of its customers on-line. It's also an economical alternative to using a lawyer. Garnett estimates that legal fees for incorporating a small business in Connecticut might run as high as $1,000. --Robyn Taylor Parets


The Book of Virtuals
Virtual teams are everywhere, argues the new book Virtual Teams (John Wiley & Sons, 1997, $28). To find out more about the expanding use of these once-exotic animals, we asked William R. Pape, cofounder of VeriFone Inc. and the author of Inc. Technology's "Virtual Manager" column, to interview authors Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps--from a distance, of course.

Pape: What's your shorthand definition of a virtual team?

Stamps: Virtual teams cross boundaries--either boundaries of space and time or boundaries of organization. Cross-functional teams are a very early kind of virtual team.

Pape: In the introduction to the book, you say that you "don't go into detail about why people form virtual teams." Could you elaborate on why?

Lipnack: We said that in order to do away with the argument that virtual teams are formed only to do X, Y, and Z. I've had people say to me, "Software -development teams are the only teams that are truly virtual." Well, that's patently ridiculous. Every team that needs to work together and whose members are more than 50 feet apart is a virtual team.

Stamps: People form virtual teams for every reason under the sun: because the technology is available, because they're able to work with people at a distance. The most likely reason is that the expertise they need is not all in the same place.

Pape: Let's discuss the flip side. In what situations do people really need to be in the same place?

Stamps: Situations that require a lot of negotiation. Situations where trust is both required and low. But if you're brainstorming the best way to solve a particular chemical problem, then that's done well on-line.

Lipnack: Nothing compares with bringing people together at the beginning of a project. You can do it on-line, but there's no substitute for the momentum you get from bringing people together with a well-organized agenda and some good social time built into it.

Pape: One of the things we at VeriFone have learned is that having an initial time in which team members get to know one another as individuals dramatically reduces the amount of communication effort required at a distance.

Stamps: On longer-term, larger projects, the best thing to do is figure out early on what the milestones are. Then you get together at those milestones--maybe four or five times over the course of a six-month project. That way you develop a rhythm of coming together and moving apart that's natural to the human condition.


The Wired Sex
Wages may still favor men, but women business owners are way ahead when it comes to taking advantage of the Internet.

Women Men
Subscribe to an on-line service 47% 41%
Frequently use the Internet to communicate or send E-mail 51% 40%
Use the Internet for research 22% 14%
Use the Internet to review business opportunities or bid on contracts 9% 3%
Have a company home page 23% 16%

Source: National Foundation for Women Business Owners.


Things We Love
Phil Schnyder is an information junkie. President of askSam Systems, a freeform-database company in Perry, Fla., Schnyder makes software that helps customers sort through reams of data, but personally, he can't get enough facts and figures to satisfy his own cravings.

To stay current Schnyder subscribes to more than 20 computer-industry magazines. In the past, when he found a juicy piece of information, Schnyder used to rip out the page and carry it around until he had time to key it into a database or feed it into his optical character recognition (OCR) scanner. Inevitably, some articles would be lost, and the pile awaiting scanning would grow depressingly high.

But all that's changed. Today Schnyder's using the IRISPen Executive ( IRIS Inc., 800-447-4744, $399), which looks and operates like a highlighter but is actually an OCR scanner that automatically inputs into a computer any text, numbers, or bar codes over which it passes. Now Schnyder impresses his fellow airplane passengers by plugging the scanner into his laptop and sliding it across the nuggets that interest him. "People think it's so cool," says Schnyder. "All that stuff that typically sits in some drawer I now have in my computer instantly." --Alessandra Bianchi




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