Computers: Timely solution to fax-machine abuse: Sue Schofield rabbits away to her Virtual Office and keeps in touch while AWOL from her desk

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The Independent Online
Being away from the office is a real problem if you rely on the telephone to generate work or service for your business. In my case I get by with an answerphone which is factory-programmed to frighten people off and my first-generation fax machine has developed an attitude problem - it receives faxes only if I stand over it and thump it when the telephone rings.

So after much thought I decided what I need is a portable Thingie that lets me receive both fax and voice calls where ever I might be.

I know I could do most of this with a cellphone and fax-modem on a laptop computer, but I have managed to resist the temptation to buy these, mainly on the basis that I will be marked out as a gangster or independent financial adviser.

Alas, my fiscal dependence on telecommunications has reached the stage where being away from the telephone for a week seriously damages my wealth. Something had to be done.

A company called Business Space appears to be the first with a solution. It has launched the 'Virtual Office', a system of black boxes interlinked to 'smart' fax machines, which apparently are capable of thumping themselves.

The service works this way: callers telephone my own virtual office number in London and are greeted by a nice human receptionist who claims that the caller is speaking to Sue Schofield's office. The call is then put through to me, wherever I am, as I have previously notified the Virtual Office of my movements. If I am out, the call goes to a voice mailbox - a sort of high quality digital answerphone - for me to telephone in and collect the messages.

Callers can also send faxes to the virtual office's fax mailbox, which then holds the fax until I ask the mailbox to send it to me. This combination of voice-mail and remote fax messaging means that callers need never know that I occasionally take time out to go shopping, or even to eat.

What is needed to get the best out of the Virtual Office is a portable communications contraption of some sort. The BT Chargecard was the smallest hand-held communications device I could find. The service can be used to make calls from any telephone and the calls are charged to your nominated account.

A little higher up the ladder - at least when I carried out my research - comes the Motorola Rabbit telephone - the Silverlink 2000.

This is about the size of a video recorder remote control handset and can make - but not receive - calls from most high street areas via the Rabbit network - you have to be within about 200 yards of a rabbit telecommunications point. I bought one instead of a cellphone as the monthly charge for the Rabbit network is just pounds 6 - cellphone charges are higher. And the off-peak cost of using a Rabbit to get your mail is cheaper than having calls redirected from the Virtual Office

So, thus equipped and ever willing to suffer hardship on behalf of Computer page readers, I took myself off to Guernsey for a week's virtual research. The Auberge Du Val does a rather good salmon with dill and sour cream. It also has a fax machine which can be discreetly thumped should a crisis occur.

I used the BT Chargecard from the pyphone in the hotel to access my voice mail and to redirect faxes stored in my fax mailbox to the hotel's fax machine. The Virtual Office's 'voice-manageress', a sort of husky female dalek, guides you through the process and tells you what messages are waiting.

The Rabbit telephone network turned out to be surprisingly good value and useful while I was away from the hotel as it unerringly connected me to the voice mailbox and was used to reply to messages directly afterwards.

Unfortunately, it now appears that I was one of less than 10,000 subscribers to the system, and it has been reported that Hutchison, the company which operates the service, is to wind up the network at the end of the year.

Back on Guernsey, I checked the mailboxes twice a day but, for an extra fee, Business Space will equip you with a pager to notify you of waiting voice or fax messages. Its black boxes will also optionally call you every half hour if you have calls waiting. The Virtual Office can even fax all of your incoming paper mail to you, wherever you are. And it is hand-bag - or shirt pocket - friendly if you use a small personal telephone to talk to it.

The costs associated with the Virtual Office vary: full automation costs about pounds 135 a month, plus call charges, more for the receptionist facility. You can add extra voice or fax mailboxes for about pounds 25 a month and charges are modular, so you can tailor a package to suit your needs.

The Virtual Office would seem to me to be ideal for salesmen, teleworkers and centralised organisations running satellite or regional offices and after a week of living with it (and the salmon), I was loath to return to ritual fax-machine abuse from a service that worked without fault and was simple to use.

Vital Statistics

Business Space: 071 917 9917. Virtual Office call answering/diversion by a receptionist starts at pounds 210 per month, less for automated service. Extra mailboxes for about pounds 25 a month.

BT Chargecard: 0800 345144. Free to BT account holders.

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