Christopher Ott

Just as e-mail offered a powerful new solution by combining two things that already existed written correspondence and the immediacy of the phone a few new computer products are noteworthy for the twists they offer on existing technology. The products detailed here can enhance business cards, e-mail and Internet access.

Plenty of companies give out CD-ROMs with demo versions of their software or multimedia presentations about their services. CyberCard from Media Dynamics (www.mediadynamics.com) offers a new twist on this in the form of a CD-ROM shaped like a business card.

CyberCard is actually about the size and thickness of a credit card, with a hole in the center. Put it in a standard CD-ROM drive and the CyberCard can play a multimedia presentation about your company or provide demo versions of software.

It can hold 16 megabytes of data, and a typical CyberCard multimedia presentation includes custom menu options, 25 screens of content, sound, and 30 seconds of digitized video. There's also the ability to include live e-mail and Web links and to print faxable forms.

Depending on what you want on your CyberCard, it may be limited to one platform or another, but the technology can be used in both Windows machines and Macs.

With an Econo-Pak option, you provide the content to be included on your CyberCard through a kind of template. Backgrounds and other options can be customized, but the template provides a standard framework, sort of like the templates in presentation software like Microsoft PowerPoint. You decide what goes in, and Media Dynamics produces the cards for after you've had a chance to review the final product.

Alternatively, Media Dynamics can help design a fully customized card, including things like the ability to collect data from customers, or you can develop the content and presentation for your card in-house before handing the project over for duplication. You can choose different shapes for the card as well, like bottles, flowers or the shape of a company logo.

The cards aren't cheap. A thousand Econo-Pak cards costs $9,500, with costs for customized cards ranging from about $5,000 to $50,000, depending on the project. But if you can make a sales pitch for your products and services through multimedia, a CyberCard could one of the most effective business cards you'll ever hand out.

Letters, phones

There's now a new way to combine e-mail with the postal service.

Though most of us did without it until just a few years ago, e-mail has made sending mail the old-fashioned way seem downright laborious. The Send-Letter.com service allows you to send e-mail to standard "snail mail" postal addresses.

The service is useful if you just can't bring yourself to lick envelopes anymore, or, a little more down-to-earth, it's useful if you need to send e-mail to a list of recipients that still includes a few snail-mail holdouts. It can also be useful if you're on a business trip and didn't bring stationery or envelopes and don't want to bother hunting down stamps.

You send your message electronically to Send-Letter.com and choose stationery and other options, like certified delivery. If you're at a loss for words, the service also provides model letters you can adapt.

Each letter costs $1.95 to send, with options like international delivery a dollar extra, or certified delivery for $3.

Finally, there's a new way to manage your phone line. If you have a single connection that does double duty for phone calls and online access a common home-office arrangement every time you go online, you may be missing a call. The Internet Call Manager (www.internetcallmanager.com) is software for Windows (a Mac version is said to be in the works) that can monitor your phone line and let you know if someone is calling while you're online.

Thanks to caller-ID technology (which you don't need to subscribe to in order to use with this service), Call Manager can also tell you who is calling and play a message asking him to hold for a moment while you disconnect from the 'Net and then take his call.

Internet Call Manager costs about $5 a month (a free trial period is available), and the service is available throughout most of the continental U.S.

Travel tips

Ever had a technology disaster while traveling abroad? Here are a few tips for how to avoid them.

? Protect your data. In theory, airport X-ray machines pose no threat to laptops or magnetic storage media like floppy disks. However, the motors that drive the belts on some security machines use magnets that can damage magnetically stored information.

To reduce exposure to these magnets, place your laptop as close to the machine's entrance as possible and remove it from the other end as soon as you can. And if caution is worth the inconvenience, have your laptop inspected by hand. Be sure the battery is charged so that it can be turned on to demonstrate that it works (and isn't just being used as a case to smuggle something). If possible, keep copies of your most important work on removable disks and pack these with your checked baggage so that they are not exposed to the same conditions as your carry-on.

? Be careful with digital phones. Modern hotels and offices may offer digital phone lines, which carry an electrical current and can damage equipment like modems. Devices are available such as the IBM Modem Saver, which detects whether a line is digital or analog, and the TeleAdapt TeleSwitch Plus, which allows you to safely connect to a digital phone line through the handset. Some digital phones also have a separate jack labeled "data port" which is safe for modem connections.

? Contact a local reseller. If you're really in a bind, you may need to contact the local offices of the company that produced your hardware or software, if that's possible. Many hardware and software companies make complete lists of their offices worldwide available through their Web sites. Stopping by their local reseller may let you buy what you're missing, or it might give you the chance to ask questions about problems that you're having.

? Use a calling card. Check with the company that issued your calling card to be sure, but most companies can give probably give you a rate that is lower than what you'll get if you simply place a call and let your hotel bill you. You can set up your modem to handle calling cards through the Modem control panel's Dialing Properties window in Windows 98. In the Mac OS, use the Remote Access control panel's Dial Assist option under the RemoteAccess menu.

Christopher Ott is a freelance technology writer and can be reached at chrisott@earthlink.net. Individual questions cannot be answered, but suggestions for future columns will be considered.

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