Continents of data. (data management in home offices)(includes related articles and product listing)
by Gregg Keizer
As long as your phone, PC, fax, copier, and other gadgets stay in good repair, you can keep in touch with your clients and customers, order supplies and services, pump out the work, and turn a dollar without leaving your home office or accessing outside sources of information. In fact, the only opening you would need to the outside world is one large enough for delivery people to slide mail and express packages through.
As farfetched (and unhealthy) as that sounds, the day of the virtual home office--where you have everything at your electronic fingertips--has already dawned. You can reach out and touch every resource you need from the comfort and convenience of your home office.
You can even draw from the information well without setting foot inside a library. One way, of course, is to hit the wires and telecommute to any of several excellent commercial databases on online services and bulletin boards.
Another way to get the business information you need, a way that doesn't set the telecomputing meter ticking, one that compresses entire shelves of in-office reference material to a handful of plastic discs, is CD-ROM technology.
CD-ROMs use the same CD technology that has revolutionized the music business. Tiny pits and peaks are set in plastic to represent digital data. A low-powered laser reads these highs and lows and then re-creates the original music, image, or text. A CD-ROM opens up vast expanses of storage space--enough to fill about 1500 floppy disks. You can cram hundreds of books onto one platter slightly smaller than a 45-rpm record.
But CD-ROM development suffered from a computing Catch-22: Without a broad selection of usable discs, few people had reason to buy a drive. But without lots of drives on desktops and in PCs, disc publishers had little reason to produce software. Recently, however, drive prices have fallen from the stratosphere, and producers have seen a ready market for their wares.
Sony, one of the consumer electronics gorillas, slips around this chicken-and-egg problem by bundling a six-pack of CD-ROM titles with its CDU-535 drive. You'll find Sony's Laser Library commonly discounted to just under $600. Some PC makers who are providing CD-ROM drives in their systems, like Sun Moon Star and Headstart, also seed with software that's sometimes free, sometimes deeply discounted. Aggressive CD-ROM publishers take a risk and price their products for the consumer, not the corporation, hoping to make their profits on volume.
Tandy, though not normally known for breakthrough pricing, sells its CDR-1000 internal drive for less than $400. The CDR may be slow at accessing data, but it's one of the few drives that meet MPC (Multimedia PC) standards for streaming data--reading it from the disc--once it's found. Sony's CDU-7211 and CDU-541 are faster, more expensive drives that sit outside your PC. Toshiba's XM-3300 series devices (XM-3301B-PCF and TXM-3301P1-PCF) are fast, but they're troublesome if you want to play audio CDs (almost all CD-ROM drives also take straight music discs). And NEC's portable CDR-36 is a go-anywhere drive that provides CD-ROM access on the road.
For the home office, where speed sacrifices must often be made at the altar of price, the Tandy drive and the Sony Laser Library are best buys. Both drives are solid performers; and the Laser Library's bonus software goes a long way toward getting your CD-ROM collection rolling. The Tandy drive does without the bothersome caddy, the protective shell the discs sit in, and has the advantage of hiding inside your PC. By the same token, that means you must install the drive yourself, something some home office workers will shun. The Laser Library, on the other hand, is an external drive that only requires an empty slot.
Indispensable Home Office CD-ROMs
It's not difficult to assemble a working CD-ROM reference library that replaces several feet to space once reserved for dictionary, encyclopedia, atlas, and theasaurus. Even more specific CD-ROMs can turn you into a direct-mail marketeer or a telemarketing phenom.
CD-ROMs let you search through volumes of information in less time than it now takes you to grab a book.
Microsoft Bookshelf should be at the front of your home office CD-ROM archives. Available in both DOS and Windows (multimedia) formats, Bookshelf is an excellent general reference starter kit. You get The American Heritage Dictionary, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, Concise Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, Hammond World Atlas (Windows version only), Roget's Theasaurus, and The World Almanac.
The multimedia version of Bookshelf uses animation, music, and speech to bring these references alive, something that you can forgo if you're using them exclusively for the office. You'll find that others in the family, especially kids, will think the spoken word pronunciations, digitally recorded national anthems, and animated illustrations for articles are great, though.
If you're strapped for cash, go for The Software Toolworks Reference Library, a collection that costs $50 less than Bookshelf. It, too, includes a dictionary, thesaurus, and quotations, and it tosses in several other useful works--an address and phone directory and New York Public Library Desk Reference stand out--but it lacks an atlas and encyclopedia.
No matter what general collection you start with, a full-length encyclopedia should be next on your home office CD-ROM list. The New Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia, number one on the Bureau of Electronic Publishing's bestseller chart, is a multimedia production with such minimal hardware requirements--only 512K and a floppy drive--that it's perfect for the low-powered home office. Sound, speech, and music add to the reference, but it's the text itself--identical to Academic American Encyclopedia you find on the online services--and an attractive price ($395) that makes this worthwhile. Your other pick, Compton's Multimedia Encyclopedia, comes from Britannica and is a more thorough reference.
Once you have the essential references at your fingertips, you can move on to more specific CD-ROMs that meet the needs of your own business.
The process of finding new clients and then organizing a direct-mail campaign means you'll burn the midnight oil. You can hit the local yellow pages, but that only gives you nearby businesses. Or you can slip American Business Information's Business Lists-On-Disc into your CD-ROM drive. This collection of over 9 million businesses, culled from over 5000 telephone directories, lets you search for clients by everything from city or ZIP code to company size or the type of business.
And you pay only for the names you use. Business List-On-Disc includes a key counter that you stick into your PC's parallel port. You can download, print, or autodial up to 1000 names before that counter empties; you buy additional lots of 1000 names at 12 cents per name. Obviously, it's most economical when you download lists to your PC--that way you can reuse the list as many times as you want.
If you work in the computer business, you need Ziff-Davis's Computer Select, a full-text collection of 50 computer magazines. Hundreds of other publications toss in article abstracts (short summaries), which are less valuable. For computer consultants, freelance writers, and mail-order merchants of software or hardware, Computer Select is a paper-free way to keep up with the industry. You can search through the hogpile of text by any combination, from company name or product to your own string of words. Computer Select isn't inexpensive at nearly $1,000 per year, but the perks include monthly CD updates.
High-Tech Home Office
CD-ROMs in the home office provide instant access to library-sized chunks of information. It's as if you had a slew of electronic databases in your home.
The home office of the near future will have even more ways to handle information. Sony's Data Discman, a Walkman-sized box that bundles a 3 1/2-inch CD-ROM drive with a 3 2/5-inch screen, sells for around $550. Discs like CIA World Fact Book, The American Heritage Dictionary, USA Today 1990/1991, and Compton's Concise Encyclopedia put text (but no pictures or sound) on the Data Discman. Throw this two-pound machine in your brief-case, add a couple of miniature CDs, pick up your notebook computer, and you cash handle business anywhere.
Apple and IBM, meanwhile, hope to mine the same reference mother lode with a portable reference reader or multimedia machine they will coproduce sometime in the next three years.
If the future of working includes working at home, it also includes optical discs, gigabytes of information, and the means to make sense of it all. Continents of data are waiting under the rainbow sheen of the compact disc. It's time to start exploring.