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ISSUE 553: The high tech office- May 30 2000

Free company PC and Net account must have strings

More from 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 must en-
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 planning.

Several weeks ago, we took a look at Denver brick-seller Robinson Brick ( 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 business processes.

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
( suggested checking out Alco Ventures (www.
), 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 price/detail/
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 controls."


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan