Special Report on Business Computing: Quick ways to quit the drudgery: Developments are beginning to lure individuals into setting up the 'home office'

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IF YOU have just struggled into work, you really needn't have bothered. If you work at a desk, tomorrow you could work from your car, from home or from the middle of the Sahara desert. You can even fax and send computer messages on some flights in the US.

And if you believe that the equipment isn't quite right for you today, one thing is certain, as technology advances, the purely technical reasons for staying tied to your office are rapidly disappearing. The three main ingredients for all but the most esoteric mobile or 'home office' are the phone, the fax and the computer.

For the car-bound executive, salesman or engineer the mobile phone is the essential tool. Using cellular technology, the office-in-the-car can already be a reality. Portable faxes and modems can be used but their effectiveness may be limited by reception and hands-off problems but these can be greatly reduced with stationary reception or transmission. You can already get very useful fax modems which are only about one-and-a-half times the size of a packet of cigarettes. They plug into the back of your portable computer and allow you to send faxes from your hotel room or pretty much anywhere.

These problems should disappear with a new digital cellular technology, GSM, which is just becoming available. When GSM is up and running improved signal quality should allow cheap fax machines to receive faultlessly on the move.

But for the next year or so the choices will be between normal cellular offerings, recent lower-priced services from Cellnet and Vodaphone for those who make few outgoing calls, and possibly the soon-to- be-introduced Rabbit system.

Rabbit is a cheap telephone system but with a significant disadvantage - it can only make outgoing calls. However, used in conjunction with a pager, it is a particularly good alternative for people like service engineers, who will normally have access to a phone on site and will only need to call in infrequently. With most town centres well covered by the end of October, the Rabbit phone should save the hassle of finding a telephone box, the right change and a place to park. It can also be used as an excellent cordless phone at home or work.

But the powerhouse for most mobile workers is the portable computer and there has never been a better time to buy one. Modern portable computers are as powerful as centralised office computer systems were five years ago and electronic mail allows you to share computer files all over the planet.

Competition in all sectors of the PC market is ferocious. IBM, the world's largest computer company, recently set up an operation to sell cheap 'clones' called Ambra. Its fiercest competitor, Compaq, immediately countered with a whole range of cut-price machines. Portables figured prominently in the two companies' new line-ups and many others are now offering inexpensive machines.

To complete the mobile package, excellent 'use anywhere', small printers are available, with Citizen, Kodak and Canon producing the best known. In the 'home office' essential technologies are those that replace secretarial functions and allow you to communicate with colleagues. Most of these again centre around the telephone system with the computer once more the essential work horse.

Fax machines are a vital tool for communications and productivity. A fax can normally send the written word to the other side of the world faster than a memo can move between two offices.

One alternative or addition to a standard fax machine is the fax card. These sit inside your computer and allow you to generate text in an ordinary word processor and send it as a fax without ever having to print it out. This can be a powerful tool. Most fax cards can also receive incoming faxes, but they are nowhere near as convenient as a dedicated fax.

There is a bewildering array of fax machines to chose from, with Panasonic alone, for example, offering 12 models. The new BT shops offer a good chance to browse and look at different machines.

A couple of things to look for when buying a fax machine: first, paper cutters, while not essential, make life a lot easier. These cut the faxes into their single sheets. But the big money saver is the combined fax-answerphone.

These save the expense of an additional telephone line which can cost up to pounds 160 to install, plus line rental charges. These faxes have a clever electronic switch that detects the high-pitched squeal of an incoming fax, and routes the call to the fax part of the machine. If you are out and the call is not a fax, the call goes to the answerphone. Older machines, and some add-on 'fax switches', involve the caller in having to wait for a message to end if they wish to speak to you. These can be rather frustrating.

But check the answerphone features carefully. In many ways your answerphone is your secretary. You should be able to pick up messages when you are out. There is a trade off here, of convenience over security - the easier it is

for you to pick up messages, the easier it

is for someone else to get your messages. However, unless you are really worried about industrial espionage, avoid complicated security systems because they can become very irksome if you have to call-in regularly.

A very useful, though not essential, feature is the ability to change the outgoing message. This can have many bonuses leaving brief messages for other people, telling callers where they can reach you for the next couple of hours and so on.

The much underrated pager can be invaluable, particularly when used in conjunction with the answerphone. Paging services range from the most basic tone pager, which simply alerts you to call in (useful in conjunction with an answerphone for urgent messages), through to full-blown message services operating in conjunction with display pagers that can relay messages several hundred characters long.

If you spend a lot of time phoning people then one additional piece of hardware is worth its weight in gold. Callbox is an add-in card for your PC which allows your computer to dial telephone numbers for you, while you carry on using your word processor, database or whatever. While this in itself is trivial, the call queuing software and call management features are superb. The system costs pounds 249 plus VAT and should repay itself in a couple of months if you are in tele-sales or any telephone intensive job.

Getting the most from your ordinary telephone can also pay great dividends. BT's Star Services allow you to have three-way calls (useful for setting up meeting or discussing problems), divert your calls when your phone is busy or does not reply, find out the cost of specific calls so you can charge these back to client and more beside. One much underused service in this country is call waiting, where, if you are on a call, you will hear a discrete 'pip pip' to let you know another call is coming in and with a couple of keystrokes you can talk to that caller and arrange to call them back. Each of the services cost only a few pounds a quarter and will save the expense of additional lines and lost business. They are only available in areas with digital or enhanced exchanges but BT says that covers something like 70 per cent of all lines in the country.

There is one other technology that is rapidly becoming a boon for keeping distant workers connected with colleagues - the videophone.

While video conferences have long been a useful, but expensive, business tool, the era of the cost-effective

videophone is just around the corner. These phones should be on sale later this year at pounds 700 a pair from BT and other manufacturers. While the images are crude and jerky they are clear enough to prevent people working from home feeling too isolated - be they in Inverness or Istanbul.

(Photograph omitted)

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