Eight ways to work across the Web
June 2, 1998
by Eric Bender
You're an old hand on the Web. You waste time at bluearmadillo.org or spankthenanny.com. You chat into the wee hours with disagreeable strangers at alt.betterthanyou. You can unleash an Amazonian river of electronic news on your unsuspecting PC, book a flight to the Amazon, or buy books at amazon.com.
You've had your fun--now brace yourself for a radical new role for the Web, one that can be expressed in a simple four-letter word. (Hint: It's not "cool" or "free" or "Java".)
Turns out that the Internet offers great new tricks for collaborating on projects with any colleague anywhere. These techniques are particularly helpful for projects that cut across countries or companies. No matter where you are, you and your coworkers or contractors or customers can work together, in real time or any time, efficiently sharing information and handling tasks much more quickly.
You can do a surprising amount of this collaboration with free or cheap desktop PC packages, especially if you're willing to delve a little into the mysteries of Internet programs and protocols. Whether you work in a Fortune 50 firm with a warp-speed Web connection or are a sole proprietor with a dial-up account, these packages can make you more efficient. Here are eight tips for working across the Web with software you already have or can buy for cheap. Get used to these tools--you'll be spending a lot of time with them in the future.
1. Share the Latest Information in HTML Format
You can take just about any standard company, department, or project document and convert it into HTML (the lingua franca of the Web). You can then put the document on a shared directory on any PC or server--and it doesn't have to be a Web server.
What kinds of documents? Project plans, calendars, status sheets, product data--anything that a number of people need to see regularly.
What do I use? Almost any current application lets you save a document, page, or view in basic HTML form. Older packages may require you to first install an add-on--for example, Internet Assistant for Word 95. This year's suites all let you easily export to HTML, usually just by selecting File*Save As HTML. With the most recent word processors and spreadsheets, you can later import the result from HTML, make updates, and reexport the file. You can also update the document from any HTML-capable editor, including those bundled with Internet Explorer 4.0 and Netscape Communicator.
Why is this system better than sending information by e-mail? If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Today we all use e-mail for tasks on which it quietly fails. But a variety of better tools now exist for many of these tasks.
Imagine, if you will, that you're running a project involving people who travel and work at different locations, and you want to make sure they all get project update summaries. If these summaries can't fit into 20 lines of plain e-mail text, or if the recipients start firing back replies with minor updates, or if they're working on another PC that doesn't store all their messages, or if they're simply sinking beneath a blizzard of e-mail, your updates start to get lost.
But post a status summary in HTML format to a known Web address, and your recipients need only create a bookmark, available in any browser, to get your summary. Even better, all of you can get the summary from any PC on the Net, if your intranet is set up to allow such access. You receive the updated information only when you need it. And everyone with proper clearance can update the summary as needed, either in the originating application or in any HTML editor.
2. Hold a Web Conference
Want to avoid those cross-town meetings that end at rush hour, or those red-eyes back from San Francisco? Internet conferencing packages can help you skip some of those trips by handling tasks that phones and faxes can't. Their tools include shared on-screen whiteboards, application sharing, chat sessions, and low-budget videoconferencing. Increasingly, many packages now let you bring folks from multiple locations into the conference. But you must think carefully about when conferencing would be practical.
Okay, just when is conferencing practical? Conferencing makes good sense when you have appropriate tools for your meeting and when sufficient communications bandwidth is available. Audioconferencing on the Net is still mostly a gimmick, except if you're stuck in a hotel room or calling overseas and really have no other choice (see "Internet Phones Take On Ma Bell," June). As for videoconferencing, it's relatively easy to set yourself up with a slick camera like Connectix's $200 Color QuickCam2 (www.connectix.com), but the images are small and updated infrequently unless you have an excellent direct network connection. (Still, there are times when a single video image is worth a thousand words.) Shared whiteboards offer acceptable speed even on dial-up connections. Application sharing, such as collaborating on a budget within Excel, may be very slow but still quite useful.
What do I use? You have quite a choice of packages--stand-alone, or bundled with browser or office suites. One of the best packages is free: Microsoft NetMeeting (www.microsoft.com/ie/download).
Why go through the Net rather than establishing direct connections to other PCs? With this approach, you and your co-conferencers each connect to the Net as usual, with a dial-up or direct network connection. You then connect to each other, either through the appropriate Net address (the domain name, such as mrbig.bigbiz.com, or IP address, such as 18.104.22.168), or through public "directory" servers on the Net. This is generally easier than trying to set up an individual PC-to-PC connection. Also, directory servers make it easier to set up multiuser connections. And if you're connected directly to the Net, conferences aren't restricted to dial-up speeds.
3. Control a PC Remotely
Remote control software does what it says: It allows you to control one PC from another, through a dial-up line or network connection. These packages are mighty useful for running applications from another site or picking up files you forgot to take on a trip. And the latest versions work very nicely over the Internet. You just need the other PC's Net name or IP address. Be warned, though, that connections may be slow and a bit unstable.
What are the advantages over dialing in directly to the host PC? Assuming that the host PC is connected to the Net, it doesn't need a modem, you don't need to make a long-distance call, and you can surf the Web or pick up your mail on the same Net connection. Obviously, access becomes a great deal quicker if you are calling from a system that has a fast direct connection to the Net, since in that case you are not restricted to dial-up speeds.
Some remote control products have been modified to work as browser add-ons. Stac's ReachOut Global offers bare-bones remote control, and both the viewer and the program you run on the host PC are downloadable for free (www.stac.com). The full-featured ReachOut 7 costs $189.
Remote control also lets you deliver presentations across the Net. Say you've got a really slick PowerPoint presentation but you aren't quite sure you want to fly to Johannesburg to show it. Sometimes it's perfectly workable to deliver a presentation by remote control--you run through the presentation on your machine, and the other person sees it on his or her PC.
4. Open a Personal Web Office
Farallon's $50 Netopia Virtual Office (www.netopia.com) is the best current example of all you can do on the Web. It's a well-designed mini-Web server that keeps you in touch with key contacts, no matter where you, or they, are. You can control your PC from another location (using a browser add-in, which is free to you and to any visitors to your Web site). You also can set up remote control sessions with others, launch a conferencing program such as NetMeeting, post files to share, chat, leave a note indicating your whereabouts, and be alerted if someone "knocks" on your office door. The users we're highlighting in this article are all Virtual Office enthusiasts.
A few caveats: You'll need to enforce security precautions, and be aware that some firewalls will block any access from outside your network. Also, your PC must stay connected to the Net for your office to stay open, unless you can find an Internet service provider that will host the office.
5. Talk About It
Bulletin boards (aka newsgroups, conferences, and discussion forums) lay at the heart of the pioneer online communities, and they're still very effective for dealing with business projects. (By contrast, e-mail gets unwieldy when more than three people are involved.) If your organization doesn't provide such sites, check out cheap and friendly Windows 95/NT packages that support discussions and chat and run on a mini–Web server right on your own PC. eShare's $79 Reunion (www.eshare.com), for example, is fairly simple to set up. As with the virtual offices, you'll need to think about security and your firm's firewall.
6. Share Your Work Through Internet E-Mail
The latest office suites from Corel, Lotus, and Microsoft are fairly smart about using e-mail to distribute and synchronize versions of a document in progress, identifying each contributor's edits and comments. And some personal information managers and contact managers, such as NetManage's Ecco Pro (www.netmanage.com) and Starfish Software's Sidekick 97 (www.starfish.com), are good about sharing updated databases in the same way. Of course, this setup works only if every recipient's e-mail system can send and receive file attachments without scrambling them. So in practice, making this all work may require that everyone involved use not only the same desktop application but also the same e-mail program.
7. Share Your Work From a Common Location
When you share documents by e-mail, you've still got the who's-got-the-latest-version-where problem, which can be especially frustrating if your cohorts live in different time zones. Post those documents in a common place--your personal FTP server, on your own machine--and you can be sure you've got the latest version.
Excuse me, but did you say "personal FTP server"? Yes, FTP is the default way to post and share files on the Net, and Microsoft offers a personal Web server that includes an FTP server. It's free at www.microsoft.com/ie/download. It also comes bundled with FrontPage and the forthcoming Windows 98. Farallon's Netopia Virtual Office (discussed above) offers a much slicker program. Make sure that you restrict access and enforce passwords as needed.
Why not just put those files in a shared directory? Because it's often hard to reach a shared directory. If you put the files on an FTP server instead, and you do so with the right access methods and safeguards, you can pick them up from anywhere you can get on the Net. Alternatively, if your ISP gives you server space (and it should), you can post nonconfidential files there.
8. Rent a Project Office
As projects scale up in size and complexity, you need software running on an industrial-strength server administered by grizzled professionals. But you can now rent such an electronic workplace, equipped with canned intranet applications delivered through any standard browser.
For example, Changepoint (www.involv.net) lets you rent a host application for launching a project and then assigning and tracking tasks. You don't need to install any software to do this. You can check out the service with a free 30-day trial. Monthly costs then run $10 per user for discussions, and $25 per user for project collaboration.
Eric Bender, a PC World executive editor, has spent the past 14 years working with colleagues three time zones away. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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