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Little players thinking big

New concepts in technology are allowing small businesses to think big.

Little players thinking big
By Paul Festa
September 18, 1997, 6:00 a.m. PT

special report New concepts in technology are allowing small businesses to think big.

Until recently, small firms have been practically invisible on the corporate high-tech market because the technology that was being produced was too expensive or not essential for their businesses. The situation was analogous to a driver who had an old Volkswagen bug and wanted a Taurus--but found only Cadillacs on the lot.

That was particularly true where communications were concerned. Some small businesses knew that they could use something like groupware to help them get organized and grow, but they didn't have the resources to invest in full-scale systems.

To address this problem, software companies are turning to an old idea: Why buy if you can rent?

In a new twist on groupware, companies like Lotus Development and Instinctive Technology are starting to offer Web-based You would never think of owning a ballroom or owning a hotel room, yet we do the technological equivalent of that all the time workspaces, or "rooms," that can be rented for business. Instead of making an expensive and permanent investment in groupware applications or in videoconferencing technology, a business of whatever size can rent a room for the duration of a project.

Lotus offers its Instant Teamroom for rent through Internet service providers. Instinctive's eRoom product currently is available as a self-hosted application, but the company plans to offer it for rent through ISPs in the future.

Some say that the new Web rooms represent an important paradigm shift in the way businesses, small or large, communicate internally.

"The breakthrough was to use a spatial and not a systemic metaphor," said Larry Koskinen, vice president and chief information officer of consulting firm Development Alternatives, which has recently begun using Lotus's Instant Teamroom application. "Instead of 'I need to log on to the system,' the user thinks, 'This is the space I go to.'"

And that, he said, is something workers are more comfortable with, regardless of their experience with technology. The technology also helps workers negotiate geographical hurdles: Koskinen, whose firm has offices in Wisconsin, Maryland, and Indonesia, said Teamroom facilitates communications when one or two of the branches is closed because of the time difference.

In addition, the rental concept makes a lot more sense. "If you do any kind of consulting work, you would never think of owning a ballroom or owning a hotel room, yet we do the technological equivalent of that all the time," Koskinen added.

The prepackaged "Teamroom" has some precedence in the use of chat rooms, such as those available on America Online, for business groups meeting electronically. "That's the poor man's version of Teamroom," said Eric Arnum, analyst with research firm EMMS.

"This is really going for a different market," Arnum said. "It may be individuals, it may be a committee. It could be a PTA decorations committee. This type of instant meeting makes it available to a whole new tier of businesses that You don't have to shell out money for the infrastructure. When you're
done, delete. might not have considered buying into the whole Notes environment."

The attractions for small business are not only economy, but disposability. "That is the key breakthrough here: you don't have to shell out money for the infrastructure," Arnum said. "When you're done, delete...The billing stops."

Another reason to use online conferencing is the Internet itself, which allows smaller players to network without buying costly infrastructure. "This kind of collaboration is more important for small businesses than for larger ones, which can use proprietary systems," Forrester Research analyst Eric Brown said. "The only practical way to bring [small-business employees] together is to use standards-based technology, like the Internet." End of story

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