ISSUE 553: The high tech office- May
Free company PC and Net account must
the free front. In these pages, we've looked at free operating systems
such as Linux,
and free office suites such as Sun Microsystems' StarOffice.
We've seen the rise and fall of free PCs. In every case, we've
concluded that free is nice, but be very clear about the hidden costs
and what you may be giving up.
In the latest variation, businesses
such as Ford Motor, American Air Lines and Delta
Air Lines, and computer-chip giant Intel are offering free
or almost-free PCs to their em-
ployees. In Ford's case, the company has promised a PC, printer and
Internet access to its staff of 400,000 worldwide for the local
equivalent of US$5 per month.
Ford spokesperson Ron Iori
(quoted in Computing Canada magazine) said, "We want our
employees to be more computer- and more Internet-savvy." The idea is
that employees with access at home will use them and train themselves.
Ford hopes that will translate into a smoother-flowing manufacturing
system, as Iori predicts that Ford will require more and more plant
workers to use the Internet on the job. At the same time, Iori says
that Ford will make use of its online employees for internal surveys.
Ford has contracted out support, with
computer reseller PeoplePC handling the hardware-related issues
and Internet provider UUNET dealing with Internet support. Ford
will offer training sessions at some of their facilities.
But before companies jump onto this
latest giveaway bandwagon, a report from the Robert Frances Group
suggests it's worth ensuring that there's an answer to a simple
question: "What's in it for you?"
The report suggests that there are two
main benefits: a better-educated workforce (at least in terms of using
computers and the Internet) and the ability for the company and
employees to contact one another remotely. Employees can find out about
company programs and policies from home and the company can use its
workers as a test bed for new ideas and for feedback about things the
company wants to try, states RFG analyst Adam Braunstein.
Braunstein points out that none of the
companies promising this wave of freebies has clearly addressed
questions of computer obsolescence. If the companies are the owners of
the systems, they must be able to track these assets and decide whether
to keep them in people's homes. Do the companies depreciate these
systems over a number of years? Will they be replaced? Will the older
systems be claimed and perhaps distributed to charities?
And the big unanswered question,
according to Braunstein, is whether providing the PCs commits the
company to providing computers long-term. Is a PC and Net ac-
count in every home a benefit, such as extended medical and pensions?
Finally, RFG suggests that companies
sure that the free hardware includes a software package that will be
able to access core corporate resources. Note that this may then lead
to hidden costs of Web-enabling these resources and beefing up the
corporate network to handle a big boost in remote users.
For employees, such a deal sounds too
good to be true. But any employer looking at such ideas needs careful
Several weeks ago, we took a look at
Denver brick-seller Robinson Brick (www.robinsonbrick.com).
The company had converged the physical bricks of its business with the
online clicks of its Web site, not just by selling the product over the
Web, but by using the network to help forge efficiencies throughout its
Since then, we've heard of several
success stories closer to home.
Ron Reed, Western Canada
director of J.D. Edwards, pointed out that his company's
client, Trevi Pools, Quebec's largest swimming pool supplier,
will use Internet capabilities to manage all phases of its customer
life cycle from marketing through sales and service.
Here in B.C., eXcape's Nita
Powers (www.eXcape.net) suggested checking out Alco
alpro.com), a Langley-based building products manufacturer. She
said: "The true power of its site is really only apparent once you get
into the secured dealer side. The power is in being able to quickly
provide information on a line of retractable screen doors which are
custom-sized for every order. The site is integrated right into the
'back end' legacy system and into the plant with a plan to push it
right back into suppliers to get JIT (just-in-time) inventory