A range of messaging technologies can run rings around E-mail

Fifteen years ago, Sri Lanka was one of the last nations in South Asia without a national television broadcasting system, and its citizens were clamoring for TV. I was one of the people sent in by the United Nations to help the country set up a system. As it turned out, precisely because Sri Lanka had waited so long to join the television-watching world, it was able to take advantage of a new generation of broadcast equipment, and it ended up with a system that was both better and less expensive than any of its neighbors'.

Likewise, today's small businesses can start from scratch with newer, cheaper, improved technology and not be burdened by the more expensive legacy systems of their more established competitors.

VeriFone, the credit-card-verification company I helped found in 1982 in Hawaii, took advantage of this principle by embracing E-mail right from its start, long before most of its giant competitors. That allowed us to manage far-flung, decentralized offices "virtually" while our more established competitors lumbered along with mainframes and played telephone tag. We now have a 60% share of the global market for credit-, debit-, and smartcard-transaction-automation equipment, and not one of our original competitors is still in the market.

Today almost all large companies rely on E-mail. But small companies can still apply the principle of "later can be better" by recognizing the large range of messaging technologies that can in many circumstances run rings around E-mail. And they can install some of those technologies for less money than an E-mail system would have cost a few years ago.

What's wrong with E-mail? For one thing, it has a low psychological bandwidth. It doesn't convey subtleties well. Sarcasm, emotional outbursts, and even humor don't work as well as they might face-to-face. In person, you may be chewing me out, but you soften the blow by ending with a smile and by lowering your voice. Those subtleties are lost with E-mail. Even relatively innocuous interchanges can create problems, and once an E-mail disagreement begins, it can escalate quickly. E-mail is like a wall we hide behind while we lob grenades. At VeriFone we have a rule: no one argues on E-mail, and sarcasm is verboten.

Because of its low psychological bandwidth, E-mail is also a very poor medium for close supervision, especially of new employees. Managers need to take cues from employees' body language and tone of voice. E-mail can't provide those cues. It's better suited to sharing objective information -- reports, for example.

E-mail does offer immediacy, and that's an important feature. The in-house company newsletters that show up within minutes of being sent electronically are timely, while those that show up in the mailbox a week later are stale. Contrary to popular belief, however, E-mail is not real-time communication. Casual users expect people on the other end of their E-mail messages to spring into action the moment they press "send," and they become frustrated when they don't get an instantaneous response. If the message is urgent, better to wander down the hall or pick up the phone.

Nor is E-mail as confidential and secure a medium as it looks. Once a message is sent to a public printer, who knows who reads it? Furthermore, E-mail messages may be forwarded far beyond their intended audiences.

These are some of the criteria that managers should consider when assessing any communication technology: geographical independence, psychological bandwidth, immediacy, and confidentiality. Other important criteria are cost and ease of use (though the latter is, I think, mostly a matter of commitment). A cheap, easy-to-use, real-time tool that provides high psychological interactivity and geographical independence doesn't exist yet, but new technologies are providing some of those features. Here are a few of them:

Liveboard: If you and I are discussing our order-entry process, a draft layout, or an organizational change, we'll need to draw each other pictures. If we're in different places and don't want to wait for faxes, we could use the new liveboard technologies. Both of us would use either a device that looks like a white board (such as Xerox Corp.'s new LiveBoard 3.0) or a personal computer with a groupware software program (such as Intel's Proshare) that's connected via telephone wires. Whatever one party draws, the other party sees immediately. Costs are dropping: today linking two liveboards can cost as little as $7 an hour.

Audio: Imagine that you've arrived at work and logged on to your PC. In addition to a number of E-mail messages, there is an audio message from the president of the company. The audio message is accompanied by charts displayed on your screen, indicating areas of the company that need improvement. That message will have more impact than the exact same words sent by E-mail.

Audio can be recorded, digitized, and then transferred over a company's local- and wide-area networks to be stored in a local file server and played on demand by employees. Furthermore, audio can be stored in much less space and use much less LAN bandwidth than video, so it is economical. And audio production takes less time and money than video. Digital audio-editing programs are now quite common, easy to use, and cheaper than a full-featured word-processing program.

Video: The recent technological innovations in videoconferencing equipment now make it possible to hold a transcontinental, point-to-point videoconference for less than $30 an hour connect time. In 1994 we held our budget-planning teleconference between Atlanta and San Francisco for less than $300 connect time and didn't have to fly 15 executives from one city to another, a savings of more than $22,000!

At VeriFone the videoconference equipment we installed in December 1989 paid for itself in a matter of months. And software updates continually make the system more cost-effective. Initially, we thought the medium would work best for group meetings and presentations, but we soon found that videoconferencing is ideal for numerous applications. We interview job candidates by videoconference before deciding to fly them out for a face-to-face interview; we conduct supervisory meetings in videoconferences when meetings can't be held face-to-face; and we augment face-to-face customer visits with quick update videoconferences.

Point-to-point videoconferencing is only one way video can be used. A store-and-forward video message from the company president can be even more powerful than the audio presentation discussed above, but it takes longer to produce, and the production equipment costs more. That cost has been falling fast, though, and Hi-8 portable cameras and PC-based video-editing equipment allow users to build a creditable video-production facility for well under $20,000.

Virtual reality: Imagine entering a special area of your office, putting on special glasses, and being transported to a virtual meeting room where you see others as if they were in the room with you. They, in their own specified areas, can likewise see you in three dimensions. Virtual-reality conferences don't exist yet, but taking them from the drawing board to the meeting room is only a matter of adjusting telecommunication bandwidth and CPU horsepower.

When considering any of these technologies, remember that it's important to match the method to the task. Only then can you hope to give your company the means to leapfrog over its more established competition.

William R. Pape (will_ p@verifone.com) is senior vice-president and chief information officer of VeriFone Inc., headquartered in Redwood City, Calif.