A Lovely Community

by William C. Gillis

Now that Netscape is part of America Online, and AOL has become one of the nation’s biggest media conglomerates with the Time Warner acquisition, the frequently visited Netscape portal is beefing up its small-business services. The Netscape Netbusiness Marketplace now supports “communities” of companies in the same industry to make procurement more efficient, giving suppliers, for example, the means to locate a big group of potential customers. The portal’s most far-reaching tool is the Netbusiness Card, an online template companies fill out to describe their offerings and what inventory they need to buy, making it easier for both customers and suppliers to find them.

The Kitchen Sink, Too?
Wiring home appliances to the Web might seem like the punchline to a bad joke about excessive Internet enthusiasm. IBM and appliance-maker Carrier are serious, though, about a pilot program this summer in Europe that puts air conditioners on line, so they can be controlled by their owners through a site called myappliance.com. The benefits go beyond using a Web-enabled wireless phone to begin cooling the house 15 minutes before a consumer gets home. Appliance manufacturers will be able to monitor their products — noting a coolant leak, for example, before an air conditioner fails. And utilities could offer discounts to customers who allow their air conditioners to be dialed down during a power crunch. Carrier is working with New York’s Long Island Power Authority to set up just such a program using Internet-enabled thermostats in the U.S.

Life After Napster
Peer-to-peer computing may have suffered a black eye from the Napster controversy, but it’s getting a second chance, thanks to an initiative from Sun Microsystems called Project JXTA. A brainchild of Sun co-founder Bill Joy, JXTA seeks to develop universal standards for sharing resources throughout a computer network, whether inside a company or across the world. True peer-to-peer computing would allow machines to combine processing power when solving complex problems, create new ways for workers to collaborate, and greatly increase the efficiency of businesses searching out customers and suppliers. JXTA, although backed by Sun, aims to develop “open source” software available to everyone for free. And even better news: Sun is building security into its JXTA standards from the beginning, so that confidential information will be protected.

True peer-to-peer computing would allow machines to combine processing power when solving complex problems, create new ways for workers to collaborate, and greatly increase the efficiency of businesses.

Paging Doctor Tech, Paging Doctor Tech
Physicians are among the most automation-resistant of professionals, but the increasing number of administrative burdens in the healthcare industry is forcing change. Pfizer Inc., a major pharmaceutical maker, has formed a joint venture with Microsoft and IBM to provide hardware, software, and services for physicians in small group practices. Although details haven’t been announced, doctors might be equipped with wireless digital organizers to summon patient medical records and to submit prescriptions and billing information. The whole package will likely be subscription-based, so medical offices won’t need to worry about buying hardware or configuring software. But a recent survey by the American Medical Association shows how far physicians still have to go: Only 25 percent of doctors with Internet access are communicating with patients by e-mail, and only 26 percent have their own Web sites. Physicians have resisted many previous attempts to modernize their work, including a high-profile and very unprofitable push by WebMD, backed by billionaire Netscape founder Jim Clark.

Occupational Hazards Lurk in Your In-Box
Feeling overwhelmed by e-mail? You’re not alone. Recent studies show that American workers are spending more and more time dealing with messages swamping their company e-mail accounts. The good news is that there are ways to cut down on e-mail volume — saving you and your employees time and increasing overall productivity.

A study by the Gartner Group, released in April, suggests that many of the e-mails workers receive are unnecessary, and are the result of inefficient e-mail practices. Gartner surveyed 330 business e-mail users, and found 34 percent of the messages they received were what Gartner calls “occupational spam” — not only forwarded jokes and non-work related material, but also business messages needlessly forwarded or distributed to co-workers.

The study also found that the average American worker spends approximately 49 minutes a day managing e-mail, but only 27 percent of the e-mails employees receive demand immediate attention.

A survey by Ferris Research released in July 2000 also concluded that excessive e-mail hurts worker productivity. Ferris estimated that the typical corporate e-mail user receives roughly 30 messages a day, up 50 percent from the previous year, and spends over two hours a day dealing with e-mail messages and the tasks they trigger.

According to Nancy Flynn, president of the ePolicy Institute and author of The ePolicy Handbook, businesses should institute written policies and guidelines for e-mail use to cut back on the e-mail deluge. “Businesses should put in place a written e-policy covering what workers can or cannot do with company e-mail,” Flynn says. In addition, Flynn encourages companies to incorporate guidelines for writing and sending e-mail to break bad habits such as excessive forwarding and abuse of the “reply to all” function.

Flynn also says that employers should explain why e-mail policies are necessary. “Educate your employees; let them know the problems excessive e-mail can pose,” she says. “Wasted productivity and legal liability are serious risks.”

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.
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