Cheap Shots

FRAMINGHAM (07/03/2000) - The drive to get Internet tools for free isn't derived from some evolved sense of household budgeting; it's innate. "It is part of our animal instinct," says Timothy Hoffman, a psychotherapist and the director of Ambrosian Associates in Pastoral Counseling in Spencer, Massachusetts.

It isn't a question of morality, he says. "It's why Eve made that tragic mistake - the apple was hanging around for free. Really, it was just a survival instinct to grab it," he explains.

Far from causing you to be cast out of Eden, the following four free services can serve as useful alternatives to their more expensive counterparts - or they can complement existing information technology services - if you know the risks.

Storage on Demand

It's no secret that most users don't back up their hard drives. But now many users are dumping backups of their important files into free online storage spaces, also known as "virtual hard drives." Companies such as i-drive.com and Driveway Corp., both in San Francisco, offer about 50MB of free storage per user.

"I-drive saved our lives on at least one occasion that I can recall," says Sheryl Worcester, a consultant at The Townsend Group, a small campaign consulting business in Washington. When the disk containing a file for an important presentation couldn't be found, it turned out that someone had also saved the file to an i-drive account. "After that, we began using it very consistently," says Worcester.

Now The Townsend Group uses online storage for backups and file sharing.

Co-workers often put the finishing touches on presentations while Worcester is en route to a client. She then uses a computer with Web access at the client's site for the briefing. "It's nice to have everything waiting for you when you get to your destination," she says.

But while any backup regimen is better than none, don't mistake free online storage for secure, reliable backup sites, which can back up and restore a user's desktop, says Philip Mendoza, an analyst at International Data Corp. In Framingham, Massachusetts. "In general, most free sites don't have very good security. If you have stuff you don't want people to see, it should be encrypted before you send it."

Users who pay for dedicated online backup software and servers get greater speed and efficiency for the money.

Fax and Voice Mail

For many world travelers, retrieving corporate voice mail means an expensive call home. Without a computer, you won't get your e-mail, either.

Now "universally accessible unified messaging" - a one-stop service to retrieve voice mail, e-mail and faxes from anywhere, anytime, might change all that.

Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray Inc. predicts that the communications application service provider market will grow from US$250 million in 1998 to $7.2 billion in 2003.

"I travel a lot - at least once per week, and often out of the country," says Jan Weiss, a New York-based international investment banker. When she leaves town, she gives her co-workers the fax number to access a free account at Onebox.com, which is owned by Phone.com Inc. in Redwood City, California.

"Because I'm often in funky places, it can be hard to get faxes in the middle of the night," she says.

Onebox, a free service similar to those offered by Menlo Park, California-based EFax.com Inc. and Los Angeles-based JFax Communications, gives users phone numbers for incoming faxes and voice mail and an e-mail addresses. Messages show up in the users' online accounts, and users click on them to play voice mail or display faxes. Users can also call in to check voice mail and hear e-mail messages read electronically.

But when security fails, free e-mail can mean free e-mail for all to see.

That's exactly what happened last Aug. 31, when hackers exploited a Microsoft Corp. programming error to deactivate the password protection on its free Hotmail Web-based e-mail accounts for 10 hours. More than 40 million accounts were vulnerable.

Security risks aside, the cost is attractive. "For the amount that I use it, it's great," says Weiss, who normally only gets a few faxes per trip.

E-Mail Lists

One of the benefits of the Internet is that it allows people to join communities made up of others with similar interests. Take e-mail lists:

Onelist (which later merged with EGroups Inc. in San Francisco) created its first e-mail list to discuss the anole lizard. Anytime someone on the list sent an e-mail to the eGroups e-mail address, every other person who subscribed to the list received that e-mail. A community formed. "People on the list were talking breeding habits, eating habits," says Mark Fletcher, co-founder and chief technology officer at EGroups.

For dispersed organizations, project teams that disband and reform frequently or other networks of people, having users handle their own subscriptions saves IT people from having to administer those accounts.

But the downside of free e-mail lists lies in the administration time, says Beau Gould, CEO of NYC-Search, a one-man recruitment firm in Astoria, New York.

He also administers the EGroups "nycnmj" e-mail list, to which anyone can subscribe or post New York-area job openings or résumés.

"Sometimes people subscribe to the list and don't realize what they're getting themselves into - the volume of e-mail being sent - and ask to be removed," he says. Users can log on to eGroups and deactivate any subscription, but Gould says about 90 percent of them either don't know how or don't want to take the time. So they e-mail him or spam the list with "Unsubscribe me!" messages.

Since most e-mail lists archive every e-mail sent to a group, free e-mail lists might not be a good option for companies that need to keep their internal workings secret.

Instant Messaging

While the adoption of corporate instant messaging (IM) - real-time text messaging between computers - has been slow, 46 percent of Fortune 1,000 companies plan to use IM for business collaboration by the end of next year, according to Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Forrester Research Inc.

For many organizations, free IM just doesn't scale. A new user-name file has to be pushed out to every user every time an employee changes, and someone needs to maintain the file. Commercial IM software, on the other hand, automates this process.

But some companies are turning to free IM software for customer-critical activities such as customer support. "For our support group, we do ad hoc support through ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger," says Fletcher. "Once you have a Web site, you want to keep providing increasing levels of support to users. You want an immediacy to your level of support that instant messaging can give you."

Unfortunately, there's no one standard for instant messaging, and companies such as America Online Inc. often block competing IM software from communicating with theirs. Still, "there's obviously strength in numbers, and ICQ and AOL's IM cover most customers," says Fletcher.

The biggest beneficiaries of free Internet tools might be road warriors - travelers who use the tools to supplement their existing IT travel arsenals.

No Free Lunch

"There's no such thing as free e-mail, or free lunch," says Timothy Hoffman, psychotherapist and director of Ambrosian Associates in Pastoral Counseling.

Using something that has no cost attached to it carries a different type of risk - it circumvents humans' innate sense of value. "Free also means addiction. I see a lot of people who are addicted to AOL chat rooms," says Hoffman.

But don't despair about the human condition too quickly; there are limits to what many people will do for a free lunch. For instance, in a research study conducted last November, Jupiter Communications Inc. in New York found that 23 percent of consumers said they would be interested in free online access in return for viewing advertising and letting their buying patterns be tracked.

But 16 percent said they would rather pay $5 per month to their Internet service provider in exchange for not viewing advertising.

Jupiter recommends that users evaluate free services according to four criteria: level of privacy, length of commitment required, intrusiveness (such as losing screen real estate to advertising) and amount of options (such as having more than one PC available in a free PC offer).

For corporate users who need the added features of a paid service, Jupiter recommends using the free services as a backup. For example, if corporate e-mail goes down but there's Web access, employees could still use Web-based e-mail accounts to get work done.

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More about America OnlineAOLBancorp Piper JaffrayDrivewayeGroupsForrester ResearchICQIT PeopleJFaxJupiterJupiter CommunicationsMessengerMicrosoftOnebox.comOnelist

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