I hear this complaint from people all the time: They work at a company that gives them a top-of-the-line desktop PC, an ultra-thin laptop, and a slick personal digital assistant. All of this gear is great at what it does, but often it's out of sync with other people's systems. As a result, the company's work loses its flow: The art department sends an electronic version of a brochure to the product manager — who can't read the copy. The CEO sends the sales team an email attachment containing the latest ad-projection figures — but no one can decipher the data. Meanwhile, two new hires are fuming over how long it takes to coordinate the company's master contact database with the contact program on their laptops.
Top-of-the-line computer gear doesn't automatically guarantee that your work will flow freely. You still must be familiar with various digital languages, and you still must equip your system with the right tools.
This edition of Powertools will help make the stuff of work — from email attachments to spreadsheets to Web pages — intelligible to all. Consider the five characters described below: No matter which of these descriptions matches your problem, there's a solution that will get you in sync with colleagues and customers alike.
Racks up lots of files by trading them promiscuously; encounters turbulence when trying to read strangely coded documents.
When it comes to file formats, the computing world is a Tower of Babel. Just about every program has its own special format or language. Indeed, even different versions of the same program sometimes use different codes. One version of Microsoft Word for Windows, for example, may be unable to read documents stored by another version of Word for Windows. To get different files to speak the same language, get Conversions Plus 4.5, from DataViz.
Conversions Plus, a multilingual file-format translator, can turn a MacWrite II file into a Word 97 file, or render a PICT graphic as a BMP graphic. Don't worry about which program the file was created in: Conversions Plus will recognize the program and then translate the file. The software enables your computer to read virtually any type of file, for either Macintosh or Windows. You can even convert a file into a format that allows you to edit it, and then store the file in yet another format — or in the same format that the original creator of the file used.
For anyone who's ever received an email attachment but couldn't open it, Conversions Plus features a utility, called Attachment Opener, that decodes and decompresses attached files, allowing you to view them as legible text. If you never know which format the files in your attachments folder will be in, you'll find Conversions Plus to be an invaluable tool.
Coordinates: $100 (includes Attachment Opener). Conversions Plus 4.5, DataViz Inc., 800-733-0030, www.dataviz.com
Sends out mass mailings of documents that, inevitably, some recipients can't read.
Emailing a single document to hundreds of people can make you wish you were licking stamps again. Half of those people are bound to email you back, complaining that they can't read the file. The solution is to use a file format that everyone can work with: Adobe Acrobat's PDF (portable document format). A PDF file can be read from any computer that's equipped with Adobe Acrobat Reader, a program that you can download from the Web.
Acrobat Reader works on all types of computers. A PDF file will appear on all systems in exactly the form in which it was originally created. You can even read a PDF file from within a Web browser, such as Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer.
To create documents in the PDF format, you'll need Acrobat 3.0. Load up this software, and the next time you mass-mail a spreadsheet, none of your recipients will be able to say that they can't read it.
Coordinates: Free (Adobe Acrobat Reader); $295 (Adobe Acrobat 3.0). Adobe Systems Inc., 800-272-3623, www.adobe.com
Sometimes works at home, sometimes works at corporate HQ; travels so much between offices that files tend to get out of sync.
When I got my first laptop computer, about a dozen years ago, I also got a new kind of headache: How to transfer important files and programs from my desktop PC to my portable computer? Eventually I found a cure: Traveling Software's LapLink, which remains one of the smoothest, most reliable go-between options for moving files and data between a notebook computer and a desktop machine — or, indeed, between any two computers.
With LapLink Professional 2.0 installed on both systems, you can copy and coordinate files between your PC and your laptop — no matter where you're working. You can connect the machines directly by using a modem, a simple serial cable, or the Internet. LapLink Professional also supports USB (universal serial bus) connections. (A USB cable from Traveling Software costs an additional $40.)
Best of all, LapLink gives you remote control over your office PC. Thus, when you're working at home, not only can you retrieve files from the machine in your office; you can also access software from it. Just dial into your office system using LapLink, and call up the software that you want to use at home.
Another option: Suppose someone at your office wants a hard copy of a file that's on your hard drive — but you're away from the office, and you don't want anyone prowling around in your computer. With LapLink, you can dial into your office computer, find the file, and then print out a copy on the office printer. And if you head off for parts unknown without your laptop, LapLink will work with the schedules built into Windows 98 to keep your work connected with everyone else's work — by updating your various files and directories automatically.
Coordinates: $149. LapLink Professional 2.0. Traveling Software Inc., 800-343-8080, www.travsoft.com
The Road Runner
Barnstorms through six cities in five days without missing a connection — but manages to leave critical files back at the office.
On the eve of a big business trip, I rarely worry about what to pack in my suitcase; instead, I worry about what to pack in my laptop. I have to remember to bring files that I know I'll need, plus files that I might need, plus dial-up numbers for my online connections. Then I have to copy all of that data from my desktop computer to my laptop machine. At this point, I usually conclude that it would be easier just to stay in New York and never leave my office.
Fortunately, there's now a cure for the "Switching from My Desktop to My Notebook Computer Blues." Norton's Mobile Essentials, from Symantec, is a bundle of handy software tools that seeks to make shuttling files between computers a matter of just a few mouse clicks. All you have to do is tell the program which files you copy to your laptop as a matter of course, and the program will gather them into a single group. The next time you travel, just push one button to copy everything in that group — contact lists, sales spreadsheets, and other important files — simultaneously.
If there's one city or region that you visit routinely, then check out a tool called Location Controller, which will configure your computer to that area's settings — including the local Internet-access numbers, area code, and time zone. When you arrive at your destination, just tell the computer that you're in (say) San Francisco, and all of the appropriate settings will change automatically.
Norton will also run a virus check on your laptop, scan your hard drive for potential faults, and check to see whether your modem is working before you leave town.
Coordinates: $79.95. Norton's Mobile Essentials, Symantec Corp., 800-441-7234, www.symantec.com
Scores stacks of business cards at every conference but fails to leverage them later, because his pocket organizer is out of date.
More often than not, it seems, the software used in pocket electronic organizers and personal digital assistants is out of sync with the contact-management and calendar software that people use on their desktop machines. True, some of the personal-information-management (PIM) software that runs on standard desktop computers does synchronize easily with certain portable devices. But that is the exception, not the rule.
Intellisync, from Puma Technology, offers a one-stop solution to that problem. It coordinates your contact lists and schedule information, and it works with just about any program and with most handheld computing devices. The basic version of Intellisync runs on all flavors of Windows. Other versions work with palm-size PCs; with the PalmPilot; and with electronic organizers from Texas Instruments and Sharp. And Intellisync will probably support whatever PIM software you use at the office.
Intellisync is an especially good solution for companies in which every employee insists on using a different pocket organizer. Puma's Intellisync Gold software (available on a site-license basis) can handle a stubborn mobile workforce by supporting various handheld computers and by synchronizing them all with corporate-wide contact-management software, such as Lotus Notes or Novell GroupWise.
Coordinates: $69.95. Intellisync, Puma Technology Inc., 800-774-7862, www.pumatech.com
Action Item: Two Sites to Sync
Sooner or later, you're bound to hit a snag when trading electronic documents. Here are two online resources that will help you get unstuck.
Experts Exchange: This free service lets anyone ask for help — and then generates more or less helpful responses from a group of self-made "experts" (people who have spent countless hours troubleshooting computer problems). The site covers the full gamut of glitches, from hardware conflicts to Web-development dilemmas.
Coordinates: Experts Exchange, www.experts-exchange.com
WinPlanet: No matter what computer problem you face, chances are that someone at WinPlanet has already muddled through it. The site is searchable, and its resources are divided into sections on various topics, ranging from Windows 98 bugs to Macintosh OS 8.5 glitches.
Coordinates: WinPlanet, www.winplanet.com
Sidebar: Sync Small
Even if your office has just two computers, the smoothest way to get your work to flow may be to add a network. But don't worry: You don't need to hire a geek to do it. Glenn Weadock, author of Small Business Networking For Dummies, suggests three networking solutions that can make a real difference.
Take a look at peer-to-peer. "A peer-to-peer network — such as the kind that comes built into Windows 95 and 98 — can help you share resources like files and printers," says Weadock.
Use "Fast Ethernet." "Ethernet is by far the most popular network-signaling standard, and Fast Ethernet is up to 10 times as speedy as regular Ethernet."
Load up on memory. "For regular business use, a networked PC should have about 64 MB of RAM — enough to let you run multiple programs without slowing down your system."
Coordinates: $24.99. Small Business Networking For Dummies, IDG Books, 800-762-2974, www.idgbooks.com
Trying to connect all of your computer hardware — so that you can use it to share your work — is at best a nerve-jarring experience. One way to avoid that hassle is to get the Swiss Army knife of office machines: a multifunction device that handles copying, printing, faxing, and scanning.
One of the best values on the market is the Brother MFC-7150c. The Brother looks like a conventional office fax machine with a telephone handset. But inside, there's a full-color ink-jet printer, a scanner, and a color copier.
Working as a printer, the Brother churns out four color pages per minute. It also operates as a standard fax machine, and in that mode, it works independently of your computer — an important consideration if you receive more than the occasional fax.
Coordinates: $499. Brother MFC-7150c, Brother International Corp., 800-276-7746, www.brother.com
Sidebar: Plug and Sync
When you want to bolster your PC by adding an external device — say, a digital camera for putting photos on your Web site — look to the universal serial bus (USB).
USB plugs are now standard on PCs, and Apple's iMac has USB connections as well. They make it much easier to add peripherals to your system, since they don't require any special tinkering. Just plug in your digital camera, and the computer will recognize it and then ask about any necessary software.
But there's a catch: Most machines have only two USB ports. If you need additional ports to connect (say) a new monitor or new digital speakers, then get a hub.
Entrega's 7-Port USB Hub is a box about the size of a pack of cigarettes. Plug it into a USB port (located on the back of your system), and then plug a scanner or any other peripheral into the Hub. The device configures your system automatically, and it requires no special software. The Hub supports both low- and high-speed USB channels, and it works with USB-packed iMacs. And since Entrega hubs are stackable, you can add as many hubs as you want — without cluttering your desktop.
Coordinates: $129.95. 7-Port USB Hub, Entrega Technologies Inc., 949-859-8866, www.entrega.com
Contributing Editor John R. Quain (www.j-q.com) appears regularly on CBS News's "Up to the Minute."
A version of this article appeared in the Feb/March 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.