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Thursday, Jun 8, 2023


The abundance of platitudes about the Internet can obscure the fact that some of them are actually half true.

For a few years now we’ve been hearing how “networked computing” will be the Next Big Thing to change the way we work. The network, they say, will become your computer, and all you’ll need is access to it.

For a lot of small businesses, this still doesn’t mean much. But you can get a taste of its possibilities through the increasing number of services that are available online. The technology is still in somewhat rudimentary form, but it is becoming easier to work on the Internet instead of your own computer.

Instead of just downloading your e-mail to your hard drive or checking a Web page for the latest information, you can actually work within a Web browser.

The simplest example of this is checking your e-mail while telecommuting or traveling. In the past, this generally required lugging around a laptop, but now there’s a lot you can do from any computer with Net access: at home, at a hotel business center, from a colleague’s computer, and so forth.

By registering with a free service such as MyNetscape (my.netscape.com) or Excite (www.excite.com), you can access e-mail from several different accounts via your Web browser.

Reading and writing e-mail is just the start, however. You can choose increasingly personalized news reports about things you need to stay on top of (some services can notify you when a stock falls below or rises above a certain point, for example).

You can create personalized calendars and to-do lists which, unlike the ones tacked to the wall next to your desk, can be checked from anywhere you have Net access. You can do the same thing with addresses and other information, uploading it to the Web for access (protected by password) from wherever you happen to be.

It’s also possible to import information from desktop applications like Microsoft Outlook or ACT, and you can synchronize the information in your files or from Palm or Windows CE personal digital assistants to your online account so that it’s ready for remote access wherever you need it.

You might even want to begin using some of these services when you’re at your desk in your regular office. They allow you to set free preferences for screening out junk mail, for example. For small fees of around $20 a year (less than what you might pay for an application to do the same thing) you can subscribe to services that will page you when you receive important e-mail, let people know when you’re on vacation, or screen your e-mail attachments for viruses.

For a long time it’s been possible to buy applications that do the same thing, but the problem with these is that you may need to update them yourself. For virus protection, that may mean you’re too late. Online services can protect you more quickly and automatically.

The biggest drawbacks to these services are generally their interfaces. Many can be customized to suit your taste, but most inevitably cram too much information access to your e-mail, news, address book, etc., in addition to the advertisements from the sponsors of the services into the window of a browser. Sometimes it’s just too much, and you may miss having those features isolated in individual applications.

Many of these work-online features are also a little slow, at least through modem connections, and their reliance on Java, which is getting better but still doesn’t have all the glitches worked out, can cause occasional problems.

You might also want to think twice about storing confidential information (product launch dates, sensitive contact information, etc.) online, where it could potentially be stolen.

Online services like these are likely to become an increasingly common part of the way we work. In many ways they still require improvement. But for business travelers and telecommuters in particular, their go-anywhere convenience can make them worth trying today.

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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