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The modern office - stay in touch!

The office of the future may be no office at all as LANS, WANS and other high-tech marvels connect employees to the work place.

Business runs on information -- and being competitive depends on gathering, processing and sending vast streams of data. As personal computers have become more powerful and more user-friendly, businesses are finding that the frontier between profitability and bankruptcy can be bridged by linking computers and people together. In addition, computer networks and portable technology are changing the whole idea of an office.

Tom Carroll, product sales manager at MicroAge Advanced Information Services in Anchorage, predicts that the office of the future may be no office at all. "Maybe the model is what we're seeing with a lot of sales reps and people who have to be out of the office," he says. "They can handle a lot of what they do with laptops and cellular phones. More and more, your business doesn't require that you come in the office."

Bill Rosetti, a MicroAge consultant, agrees. "Work is becoming more distributed as access to information improves. Access to information is the reason we were all grouped together in the first place. I could do my job at home now if I wanted to. The technology exists."

LANs and WANs

Computer networks are defined by the size of the area they serve. Local area networks (LANs) connect terminals together, usually within the same building. Wide area networks (WANs) connect computers over greater areas using public switching networks.

Brian Penney, director of technology for Gandalf Technologies, calls local area networks (LANs), the "hallways, stairs and elevators that connect users with the data resources and equipment they need. LAN connectivity provides local connections and a way to focus on grouping resources across distances as well as making them available to individual remote and traveling users.

"Facsimile transmission provides a good example," says Penny. If the information you want to send already exists in on-line, electronic form, it doesn't make much sense to print it out and feed the sheets of paper into a fax machine so it can turn the image back into electronic fax format. Why not send the electronic file to a fax server, which converts the file directly into a fax-compatible form?"

Carroll says that not a lot of small businesses are beyond LAN. "The most significant thing people can do with LANs is share files much more easily than before," he notes. "Rather than hand a spread sheet around, you can manage it centrally. You can also share expensive peripherals like laser printers, plotters and fax modems. It also gives you large amounts of disk space."

A LAN is typically a four or five station network, Carroll explains. If a business already owns the computers, the network service, network cards and other paraphernalia to connect a LAN should cost about $500 to $1,000 per station.

With WANs, you can be more geographically diverse, he notes. "For example, we have offices in Juneau, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco. By definition, in a WAN, you take advantage of the existing telephone system. When we connected our San Francisco office, we didn't have to run a line out there."

Uniquely Anchorage

According to Carroll, Anchorage is a unique place, because so many businesses there often have outlying offices. What they often do is have a LAN in the home office and a modem to connect the branches. Technically, this isn't a WAN, but for a smaller company, it gets the job done.

Although WANs may be pricey to start, companies can realize some quick savings. MicroAge's Rosetti says, "For WANs, you can take an existing telephone line, and separate channels -- data on one, voice on another and fax on still another. The system combines signals, sends them, then separates them. This can save you a lot of money. For example, we were spending $3,000 per month on long distance calls between Anchorage and our Fairbanks office. Now, we buy a line for $1,700 per month, and we can send regular phone calls and computer data both."

Larger companies are opting for the benefits of LAN and WAN connectivity in a big way. Take Native-owned Arctic Slope Regional Corp., for instance. William Fread, director of information technologies for ASRC, says "Basically, we installed our own satellite system between Anchorage and Barrow. We have business in both places and points between, and we needed this kind of integration. Plus, we wanted to be able to send and receive electronic mail. We're little islands of information with these bridges connecting them."

Fread says that the new connectivity makes remote Barrow as good a place to be headquartered as New York or Los Angeles, and notes that his system serves clients as far away as Phoenix, Ariz. "With the technology available today, if you're smart enough and bold enough, you can overcome the constraints of time and geography and step up to the plate as well as anyone," he says.

"This system did a couple of obvious things for us," says Fread. "It eliminated the phone-tag scenario. When you can leave a message, the person you called calls back with an answer instead of a question. It closes transactions instead of extending them."

David Hingst, systems analyst for ASRC, adds that soon, it won't be just data streams and phone calls. "The telephone and the computer terminal will be one unit, and the person you're talking to will be on the screen. You'll be able to get that touchy-feely for personal communication. It'll be like having the person there."

Noel Janda, president of Comtec Business Systems Inc., which installs the wiring for both LANS and business telephone systems, says buyers should consider several aspects before jumping in.

He says that by properly investing, managers can save money. And, Janda notes, managers should remember that a telephone system is, in fact, a very sophisticated real-time computer.

"You need to analyze your data transmission requirements pretty closely," Janda cautions. "A LAN can be a pretty expensive way to share information. You might be able to get the same services from your telephone system."

"The hot topic right now is mobile computing," says MicroAge's Rosetti. "Not just the laptop and notebook computers, but in two or three years, personal data assistants -- PDAs -- will drastically change the market."

Rosetti explains that PDAs are portable computers that you can enter data on by writing with a stylus. By about the time the third or fourth version comes out, he predicts, voice-recognition technology will let you dictate to the PDA and be connected by cellular telephone to anybody, anywhere.

In explaining how changing technology affects him personally, ASRC's Hingst says, "I've always wanted to live in Palmer, but I'm not going to face that drive into Anchorage every day. But with our networking capabilities, I could work at home and only come in a couple of times a week, something I might be willing to do."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:office automation
Author:Gerhart, Clifford
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Words:1161
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