Getting In on the E-Signature Game

Over the centuries, signatures have come in many forms, from a simple mark to a copperplate John Hancock to the imprint of an intricately carved ivory seal. Now the U.S. Congress has added "electronic sound, symbol, or process" to the list.

That's how electronic signature is defined in the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, which went into effect on October 1. In principle, the term's broad definition means that signing one's name can be as simple as sending an E-mail or pressing 1 on a Touch-Tone phone. But companies doing business online could opt for more sophisticated technologies should they desire a higher level of security and comfort.

Anyone can create digital signatures using common desktop applications, such as Microsoft Outlook, Netscape Communicator, and Adobe Acrobat. While those signatures are images, Montreal-based onSign, a unit of Silanis Technology, offers free software for script aficionados that embeds a digital signature in the image of a user's handwritten name.

A digital signature operates by matching two "keys" -- very large numbers used to encrypt information. You use your private key to generate a signature. You then send (or store online) a digital certificate containing your public key with each signed document. The certificate explains who you are to the document's recipient, and the public key allows him or her to verify your signature. If the keys don't match -- or if the document has been altered since you signed it -- the verification attempt will fail.

In many simple digital-signature programs, users issue their own certificates. That method may be adequate among correspondents who know one another, explains Lisa Pretty, executive director of the PKI Forum, a public-key-technology industry group. If additional security is necessary, companies such as Dallas-based AlphaTrust Corp. can fill the breach by issuing users a digital ID that allows the recipient of their documents to verify their identities and validate their electronic signatures.

In the end, ensuring 100% validity when it comes to digital identities may not be possible. But signature verification in the paper world isn't foolproof either, says Rick Lane, director of E-commerce and Internet technology at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "There's no difference," he says. "Those concerns don't change." --Mary Kwak

The E-Sign Law: Just the Facts

  • Electronic signatures and records have the same legal validity as handwritten signatures.
  • No one can be required to use or accept electronic signatures or records.
  • States can preempt the new law by adopting the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (which is technology neutral) or by enacting laws that similarly do not specify which technologies qualify as electronic signatures.
  • The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act does not apply to certain documents, including wills, divorce papers, and court orders.

Source: Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act.

High-Wired Competition

As recently as five years ago, nothing in New York City symbolized the financial ruthlessness of the 1980s more than a vacant building at 55 Broad St., just west of the New York Stock Exchange.

Once the home of Drexel Burnham Lambert Group Inc., the 400,000-square-foot structure sat empty for five years after the giant securities firm collapsed into bankruptcy, in 1990. Desperate to find tenants, the Rudin Management Co. upgraded the building by installing state-of-the-art wiring, then offered the space to high-tech start-ups at bargain rates.

From the start, Rudin Management executives insisted they were creating a community, a place where creative entrepreneurs could "cross-pollinate." John Gilbert, Rudin's chief operating officer, says tenants cooperate in a variety of ways, from embarking on joint ventures to sharing ideas and services.

Ultimately, that's how it worked for Thomas Pennell, CEO of Pennell Venture Partners, which has been a tenant at 55 Broad St. for more than four years. Initially, he says, he didn't interact much with his neighbors, mostly other struggling start-ups. More recently, though, the building has attracted bigger, better-known technology companies; as a result, Pennell says, he's done some deals with his workplace neighbors and expects more to follow.

But other people get a little nervous about working side by side with potential competitors. Rudin Management "put a nice spin on it," says Charles Smith-Semedo, CEO of NewMedia Technology Corp., based at 55 Broad. But in Smith's opinion, any serious networking happens outside the front door. "When you get on the elevator, everybody stops talking," he says.

Meanwhile, even the most community-minded businesses watch their neighbors for signs of failure. When one Internet start-up directly below Pennell's space failed, the venture capitalist says, "we just took their furniture and wished them well." --Anne Stuart

Healthy Skepticism for ASPs

Application service providers (ASPs), software companies that manage data for you on the Web, are struggling to convince small-business owners that the ASP model is a secure one.

Now Accpac, a subsidiary of Computer Associates, has started one of a few partner programs in which accounting firms host Accpac applications on their Web sites. Through those programs, small-business owners can begin using the ASP offerings through companies they already know and trust.

Another small-business anxiety: even though the whole point of the ASP model is that it allows data to live anywhere, many CEOs want their data to remain physically close to home. So Accpac has built regional data centers. CEOs "like it that their data is in a building they can drive to, surrounded by fences and guard dogs," says Robert Lavery, vice-president of strategic alliances for Accpac, only half joking.

And small-business owners are absolutely right to be wary, says Joseph Fuccillo, a senior vice-president at Xand Corp., a Hawthorne, N.Y., company that provides hosting hardware and services to ASPs. "If you're going to outsource any business-critical data, you should go see the facility and make sure it's not in someone's garage," he says. --Jill Hecht Maxwell

Things We Love

Pat O'Neill's monthly mailings to prospective new accounts were getting a little stale. Her solution: CD-ROM business cards.

First she filmed a three-minute commercial for O'Neill Benefits Group Brokerage, her four-employee benefits-intermediary business in Boulder, Colo., and sent it to Microbizcard Inc., of Toronto, which burned it onto CDs the size of business cards. O'Neill paid about $2 per disc, though Microbizcard has since dropped its prices to $1.50 per unit with a purchase of 500 discs.

Microbizcard offers the discs in the customer's choice of 12 standard shapes, such as squares and ovals, or cuts them into custom designs, such as a pair of boxing gloves or a can of soda.

CD-ROM business cards have been around for about three years. What's new, says Microbizcard vice-president Dionne Skinner, is that the cards can now hold all kinds of multimedia goodies and even have E-commerce capability.

The downside: Some computers won't play the business cards without an adapter. Still, O'Neill remains eager to mail out her multimedia missives along with the regular, paper business cards. "One day CD-ROM business cards will be all over the place, and once people have a pile of them, they won't stick them into their machines," she says. "But right now, even if they pop them in for a minute, I look good." --J.H.M.

Tracking Tech Time

At first glance the job he'd done on the pet-themed Web site seemed a job well done to Todd Jones. His Internet consulting company, Semtor Inc., had built the site efficiently -- or so he thought. But when it came time to bid on the next job, Jones took a closer look. It turned out that his company had invested 1,724 person-hours in the pet site, 124 more than it had figured into the price. "That cost us about $6,000," Jones says.

Jones knew the exact numbers because Semtor, based in Weston, Fla., uses professional services automation (PSA) software from Toronto-based Changepoint Corp. ( Invented by techies for techies, it helps consultants figure out what to charge before a job begins and how to track their services once a project is under way. The software is licensed for a onetime fee of $500 to $2,000 per user. Customers can also rent it from Changepoint over the Internet for $70 and up per user per month.

Companies are also using Changepoint to help their own technology departments track their costs -- and justify their budgets. For instance, at Integris Health Inc., a health-care network based in Oklahoma City, the 160-person IT division is planning to use the software to send dummy bills to other departments to chart how it's spending its time. "When the VP of a different division says, 'I don't get anything out of IT," explains Integris IT director Cynthia Hilterbrand, "we can say, 'That's interesting. We gave you 2,000 man-hours."

PSA's ultimate value may be as a management tool for projecting costs for future work. Jones says that the detailed information that Changepoint provided on the pet-site job allowed Semtor to bid for its next job more accurately. Integris, too, plans to use its new knowledge about IT work demands to budget IT staff time. --Jane Salodof MacNeil

Outsourcing IT: What It Costs

Application Maintenance:
$250,000 to $100 million for a three year to five year contract

Hardware Support:
$2,000 to $1 million annually

Application Service Provider:
Either $20 to $2,000 per user per month or up to 10% of revenues per transaction

Call Center:
$100,000 to $2 million annually

Web-Site Hosting:
$20 to $100,000 monthly

Custom Development Project:
$2,000 to $100 million, depending on the length of the contract

Source: Ian S. Hayes, president, Clarity Consulting Inc., Hamilton, Mass.

Wanted: Tomb Raider

Computer games are really starting to get down to business. The University of California at Irvine is launching a 10-course program next semester called Gaming Studies. The program melds graphic arts, computer science, social sciences, and performing arts. UC assistant professor Robert Nideffer, who got the ball rolling and holds graduate degrees in computer arts and sociology himself, expects the gaming-studies field to become even more popular than film studies has been. Several other schools have gotten on the bandwagon as well.

Nongaming companies should keep an eye out for gaming grads. "Building a game is a very sophisticated project-management environment," notes Brian Reithel, president of the Foundation for Information Technology Education, the research arm of the Association of Information Technology Professionals. --J.H.M.

Hot Tip: Limo as Mobile Office

As Steve Healis's janitorial-services company, Avalon Building Maintenance Inc., of Anaheim, Calif., was expanding, the CEO found himself spending 8 to 10 hours a week just driving to customer sites and division offices throughout southern California. To catch up on the work he wasn't getting done while on the road, Healis ended up working extra nights and weekends. His solution: a mobile office.

Healis and division managers now travel in one of three vans or a limousine, all outfitted with an inverter, a device that lets them use laptops, printers, and fax machines en route.

The vehicles each cost about $55,000, plus $1,000 for the inverter. Janitors who do detail work at customer sites do the driving. When Healis visits potential customers, he can go out to the car, work up a proposal, and, he says, return it to the customer five minutes later. He credits the mobile offices with allowing him and his managers to handle more work during the company's growth spurt -- $150,000 a month in business each, compared with the $100,000 they did a month before they got the equipped cars. (Avalon Building Maintenance is on track to do $8 million in business in 2000.)

But Healis acknowledges that he sometimes gets a bit uncomfortable riding around in the limo. Referring to the few times the paparazzi have mistaken him for a celebrity when he pulls up to a job on Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive, he says, "I just want to say, 'No, I'm the janitor!' " --Julia Ramey

Seeing Blue

What is it about the color blue? We've noticed more and more companies -- especially high-tech and Internet businesses -- copping the cool tone for use in their names. Perhaps CEOs want their businesses to grow up to be IBM, or maybe they're just huge Cookie Monster fans. Leatrice Eiseman, director of the Pantone Color Institute, in Carlstadt, N.J., counsels companies on how customers react to colors. "Invariably, when we show people a blue swatch, we get the same kind of response: words like constant, loyal, dependable, and always there for you," Eiseman says. "It comes from the mind's association of blue with the sky and water -- things that are never going to go away." In other words, true-blue. Here's a list of just a few of the blue-toned businesses we've come across:

  • Bleu22 Studios
  • Blue Dog Multimedia
  • Blue Dot Interactive
  • Bluefly Inc.
  • Blue Hypermedia
  • Blue Martini Software
  • Bluemercury
  • Blue Moon Internet Services
  • Blueprint Technologies
  • Blue Pumpkin Software
  • Blue Shoe Technologies
  • Blue Sky Internet Inc.


Who's Afraid of E-Commerce?

Less than a fifth of U.S. small businesses sell online, according to IDC, a research group in Framingham, Mass. But never underestimate the power of the Net. By 2005, Americans will spend more than $632 billion in stores as a direct result of research they've conducted online -- more than triple what they'll fork over when shopping electronically, says Jupiter Research senior analyst Ken Cassar of New York City. --J.H.M.

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