"I'm the ultimate e-mail addict," confessed Laermer, chief executive of RLM Public Relations, an 18-employee firm headquartered in Manhattan.
The problem is that, with an office in Los Angeles and clients all over the United States, Laermer is on the road constantly. His challenge is keeping up with the 400 pieces of e-mail he said he sends and receives every day.
Once a luxury, e-mail is now an essential small business tool for communicating with employees, customers and others who are necessary for your success. But how do you keep up with e-mail when you are away? The good news is that there are many solutions. The bad news is that it can be difficult to find the right solution for your particular situation.
For Laermer, the answer is an always-on wireless e-mail device, specifically a BlackBerry 957 from Research In Motion. The handheld device uses the wireless network to automatically check for and deliver e-mail. It also handles basic personal information such as addresses and appointments.
Other vendors such as Palm and its i705 also offer always-on e-mail devices. In addition, industry analysts expect these devices to become even more popular as vendors continue to add always-on e-mail capabilities to wireless phones.
As with all mobile e-mail options, however, these devices have both advantages and disadvantages. One problem is that it is difficult to write long e-mail messages. Most of these devices, including Laermer's BlackBerry, have teensy keyboards that require you to type with your thumbs.
While many people don't like the tiny keyboard, Laermer said, "I've learned to type real fast with me thumbs." He also said he's gotten used to the small screen, one of the other frequently cited problems have with these diminutive devices.
Another downside is cost. The devices themselves cost as much as $500, plus you must subscribe to a wireless service in order to get your mail. That typically costs between $30 and $40 a month, although cheaper plans are available for low-volume users.
A less expensive and less flexible alternative is a handheld that connects to the Internet using a standard modem. Software is readily available for Palm OS-based and Pocket PC devices that can receive and manage e-mail. Unlike the always-on method, however, you can only collect your e-mail when you connect to the Internet.
If you handle a lot of important e-mail while you are away, however, either of these options are solid choices.
Instead of connecting directly to your company's network or Internet service provider's (ISP's) e-mail system with a program like Outlook, you view your mail in a regular Web browser. In addition, many of these services can collect e-mail from your Internet service provider and even, in some cases, from corporate mail systems.
A benefit of this approach is that you can get your mail from any Net-connected computer or device. Another advantage is that these services are free for basic usage, although they charge for advanced capabilities such as more mail storage capacity.
These services are particularly useful in foreign countries where there are many Internet cafes. On a recent trip to Asia, we used this method to check e-mail several times a day for a nominal cost. However, Internet cafes are not nearly as plentiful in North America.
Also, these services may not enable to retrieve e-mail from your corporate e-mail system you'll have to experiment to find out. Another disadvantage is that they can be maddening to use if you have a slow modem connection to the Internet. Finally, there's the issue of spam, something these free services are notorious for.
"I tried that route, but I got sold too much stuff," Laermer said.
But if you have regular access to an Internet-connected computer while you travel and don't need to check your e-mail constantly, this is an easy, inexpensive option.
Unified Messaging Voice E-Mail
Unified messaging systems provide a plethora of e-mail options for travelers. For instance, one of the best-known unified messaging systems, j2, enables travelers to access e-mail, voice mail and faxes both from telephones and from Internet-connected computers.
One of the more intriguing options of those systems is e-mail by phone. To use that service, you call a toll-free number and an automated voice reads your e-mail to you. You also can receive voice access to voice mail and faxes by dialing the same number.
These services are moderately priced j2's "Premier" plan costs $12.50 a month and provides both phone and computer access to e-mail, voice mail and faxes. It also enables you to conduct conference calls from anywhere.
One downside, you can't respond directly to an e-mail accessed via the telephone and some find listening to an automated voice reading e-mail annoying, particularly when there are lots of messages.
"It was horrible, way beyond exasperating," Laermer said. "(The automated voice) was hard to understand and it took a long time."
However, if most of your trips are short or if you don't receive much e-mail, this option can keep you in touch without the need to lug a heavy laptop.
The Old Fashioned Laptop
Many mobile users still employ the tried-and-true method of tracking their e-mail by connecting a laptop to the Internet with a modem. This has been one of the primary uses of laptops since laptops first appeared.
One advantage, of course, is that you can use your laptop for other tasks besides e-mail. And, of course, this method is reliable.
There are, however, disadvantages. For one thing, laptops are expensive and bulky. For another, this method requires access to the Internet. Nationwide ISPs provide access from nearly anywhere, but no service provider provides local dial-up access everywhere, you may end up making a toll call to connect to the Internet.
"I hated carrying my laptop with me all I used it for was e-mail," Laermer said.
Still, if you already own a laptop and need some computing power for tasks other than e-mail while you are on the road, this option is reliable.
One thing is sure: Few small businesses can afford key employees to lose contact with their e-mail while they travel. That's why you need a solid strategy for staying in touch when you are out of the office.
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