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Companies Eagerly Looking for Ways to Make Our e-Lives Easier

May 05, 1997|TERRY SCHWADRON | Terry Schwadron is deputy managing editor of The Times and oversees, The Times' Web site

Ultimately, consumer adoption of the Internet into everyday life will rely on one main factor--usefulness.

Computer magazine covers may tout the latest in must-have features. Ads comparing price among the computers, modems and service connections might make hardware seem the most important indicator of consumer acceptance. Content providers, including game manufacturers, always insist it is their work that will tip the scales toward adoption.

To me, though, the issue is utility. Does the Web make your life easier?

In that context, take a look at Geofax (, one of several companies that have emerged recently to help customers keep up with personal and office communications originating from disparate sources.

Keeping in touch has become a statement of high style. Look around. It's easy to spot this fully equipped, Complete '90s Business Person, armed with beeper (with the liquid crystal screen to display the full message), cellular phone, laptop, computer accessories--the works. I see these folks at the airport, on the street, in restaurants, even in concert halls.

It's become a mark of being "in" to sport the hardware and look of the well-connected. It's not whom you know, it's whether you beep. And yet, even as we complain about needing to get away from work, we are taking more and more of our desktop with us.

Where some of us see burdensome habit in this kind of behavior, others see an invitation to entrepreneurial inventiveness. Among them is Geoffrey Callaghan of San Francisco, president of Geofax, which has stepped forward to ease the pain of staying in touch.

"We want to make life simpler for everyone," he said. Business travelers who accept his service no longer have to worry about misplaced faxes, privacy or special network connections to respond, he says. For $14.95 a month, Geofax offers a one-stop means to gather and review faxes, telephone messages, voice mail, e-mail messages, paging services and responses--all from a single Internet browser or by using a touch-tone phone.

The advantages include global access, the possibility of maintaining multiple e-mail and voice-mail addresses, and, presuming you can log on to the Internet, fewer busy signals. Geofax promises to rig its service to accept lots of simultaneous calls.

The site maintains a text-to-speech translator that allows e-mail and faxes to be read over a telephone, and it can initiate a beeper page when faxes or other designated messages arrive.

Service, plain and simple.

Clearly, there have been others who see opportunity here. Beeper companies have added two-way communication, and the telephone companies have proved quite clever in developing many alternative ways to leave messages, interrupt calls, wait, record, track and otherwise make it easier for us to get back to whomever called us.

Apple, Zenith, Motorola and others have made smaller and smaller palmtop computers with the intent of making communications easier as well as making computing portable. Palmtop communications programs include Handstamp and Palmeta Mail, and US Robotics, the modem manufacturer, also has software aimed at helping keep in touch for its Pilot palmtop.

Another solution is PilotMail (, which allows for e-mail and faxes through a private electronic mailbox using a modem connection for a $10 fee, $7 per month and 10 cents a minute for telephone connection. The product of SatelNet Communications, it is another example of encouraging portability and mobility.

I'm torn by all of this effort to keep us plugged in all the time. We think it might be helpful, especially if busy families can use it to track who's where. And I do appreciate being able to become more mobile.

But there's a point where technology ceases being fun. We're allowing work to make more and more claim on free time. Nevertheless, as we insist on remaining on-call, look for companies to build more ways to find us, wake us and bring us back to the grindstone. Celebrate those companies that at least make the process easier.

The proposition here is that many companies will be looking for all kinds of ways to make services more useful. Take the search-engine companies, for example. I continue to receive more complaints about poor results from search engines than any other subject. The campaign is on for easier, more precise searching techniques.

The big search-engine companies like Yahoo and Excite have added more guide information in an attempt to help readers. By categorizing sites in groups (medicine, musical theater and the like) they are hoping to route users more reliably to desired sites.

SavvySearch and MetaCrawler also have expanded their reach and capability, adding ways to customize searches.

Among newer approaches is an amateur astronomy site called Expanding Universe ( that offers a "classified search tool" much like the Dewey decimal system to categorize site listings. The site was created in conjunction with LibraryNet, a cooperative venture of Canadian libraries; that association might account for the approach taken at the site.

General menus give way to submenus, and it is simple to find links to sites similar to the page just viewed. It is one approach that would serve the disorder of the Web well.


Terry Schwadron is deputy managing editor of The Times and oversees, The Times' Web site. He can be reached via e-mail at

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