Running Free

SAN FRANCISCO (03/06/2000) - "I can't believe they're giving this away for free," says John Ettema, owner of Inside-Out Home and Garden, a store in Campbell, California. He's talking about ECongo Inc., a free e-commerce hosting service that he used to add online sales to the business he does at his brick-and-mortar shop. "If you had told me a year ago when I opened my store that I'd be on the Web by now, I would have said you were crazy," Ettema continues.

The explosion of free services available on the Web--ranging from free storefronts like Ettema's to free collaboration software that helps you stay in touch with coworkers and clients--has reduced the economic barrier to using the Internet for business down to, well, nothing.

That's good news for cash-strapped small businesses. Without investing in a network, building an intranet or extranet, or installing any additional software, businesses can maintain group calendars, share files, and even collaborate in real time through chat or document review. Want to dive into e-commerce? Free store-building tools include everything from catalog creators to virtual shopping carts, plus the hosting services you need to put your business on the Web. All you need is a Net connection.

But don't you have to pay the piper sometime? That was the question we kept in mind as we sniffed through four online collaboration suites and a trio of free e-commerce services, as well as speaking to the small-business people who use them. We discovered that free services can only take you so far, but at least they do take you somewhere.

Free Collaboration

Peter Leshaw, who works for Enterprise Development Corporation, a nonprofit technology organization in Florida, spends far more time outside his office than in it. He, like the other experts who staff EDC, relies on HotOffice, an on-the-Web collaboration suite, to stay in touch. "[HotOffice] has trimmed a lot of time from my day," Leshaw says. "Rather than calling the office for one of the administrative documents we all share, it's easier to log in to HotOffice and access the documents there." All this is possible without physically networking the organization's machines.

By letting users select a familiar browser as the interface, Web collaboration suites like HotOffice simplify operation. There's no new software to learn, just Web-based forms to figure out. "A non-tech-savvy person can do great things [with these tools]," says James Eron. As chief information officer for the U.S. Amateur Ballroom Dancing Association, Eron helped the group get connected via a free collaboration site using HotOffice. "One of the officers is not particularly computer literate, but she publishes more documents [for sharing] than almost anyone else," he notes.

To find out whether these tools are as wonderful as Leshaw and Eron claim, we looked at four of them: DayTracker, HotOffice, Schedule Online, and WebEx. And we discovered that they're not all created equal.

YOU GOTTA HAVE THIS

Though new collaboration sites pop up on the Web with increasing frequency, they share some digital DNA. All, for instance, sport organizer-like tools, including at a minimum a scheduling calendar and an address book. Most also toss in a to-do list, discussion boards, and other features. HotOffice and Schedule Online even add synchronization with Microsoft Outlook or with handheld PalmPilots.

In most instances, all or part of the workgroup can share these organizational tools. By setting up privileges, the administrator (typically the first person who signs up for the service) allows others to do such things as enter changes in the calendar or access an address book.

The good collaboration tools, however, go beyond basic schedule sharing.

Indeed, many businesspeople we talked to considered document sharing the most important feature of an online workgroup tool. By uploading files to a Web server, users publish documents that others can share by downloading to their computers. Of the sites we looked at, only DayTracker lacks this service. But HotOffice takes the document-sharing prize: Not only does it upload files via a secure server--thereby ensuring that no hacker can intercept private and possibly business-crucial information--but it's the only free service that permits users to search for documents by keyword.

Another sophisticated tool is real-time file sharing, which enables several people to view and annotate documents simultaneously and even to share running applications like Word or PowerPoint. But of the four tools we reviewed, only WebEx provides its own real-time collaboration.

THE PRICE YOU PAY

Of course, there's no such a thing as a free lunch. Like a lot of other free services on the Web, some collaboration sites make their money by bombarding you with advertisements. HotOffice, for instance, sticks banner ads at the top of every page. If you love certain collaboration tools but don't want to expose your employees to ads, you can buy ad-free versions of the software. Both HotOffice and Schedule Online offer such an arrangement. DayTracker carries no ads in the first place.

WebEx takes a different approach by getting rid of ads and limiting the functionality you get for free. If you want to get together with a group of more than four people and collaborate for longer than 10 minutes, WebEx will start charging.

Here's a blow-by-blow account of the collaboration tools we used.

* DAYTRACKER.COM

Can create private client groups, easy to add anyone to the collaboration.

Lacks file sharing and can't support real-time collaboration.

DayTracker doesn't win the blue ribbon as a collaborative tool. Though it includes the basics--a group calendar, an address book, and message boards--it doesn't let you share files, conduct chats, or provide Net-style document or application collaboration.

DayTracker's most striking feature is its ability to segregate projects by "groups," a term it uses to mean concept- or idea-specific content. You build groups for each project or client and then invite people to join a specific group. Basically, this group function is a slick privacy feature, separating information so Client A sees the calendar events, contacts, and discussions you want her to see, but not the content you've arranged for Client B.

DayTracker doesn't have tools like file sharing and chat, but neither does it bombard you with ads or slap any restrictions on how much data you can stick on its servers. Unfortunately, that could change. DayTracker.com is being purchased by FranklinCovey, makers of the Franklin Planner line of paper-based organizers. At press time, Franklin hadn't announced any changes, but group scheduling will probably remain DayTracker's focus.www.daytracker.com* HOTOFFICEProvides a full suite of collaboration tools, includes excellent file-sharing features.

Maximum 40MB of free shared file storage.

HotOffice recently unveiled its free Web service after years of honing a paid version of the software. So it's no wonder that HotOffice is the most polished and feature-rich collaboration site of the four we looked at. It combines the most comprehensive set of tools--including Web-based e-mail, group scheduling, contact and document sharing, chat space, and threaded discussions--with an easy-to-use interface.

File sharing may be HotOffice's best feature. You can publish files for group consumption by uploading them to HotOffice and then adding descriptive text to each file so users know in advance what they're downloading. Another outstanding convenience: A search engine is available to help users dig up files by keyword. Users can either view those documents within the browser--HotOffice converts them to HTML format on the fly--or download them for later review.

But HotOffice has some negatives, too. One drawback is that you must explicitly define all users before they can join you--there is no virtual office or directory-like listing for customers to browse. A second (and more frequent) annoyance involves HotOffice's tendency to bombard you with advertising. And finally the service limits the amount of free storage you get to 40MB for your entire company (you can, however, pay for extra storage at a rate of $2.50 per month for each additional 20MB).www.hotoffice.com* SCHEDULE ONLINESupports basic file sharing; guests can view calendars without having to register with the service.

Forms for many tools are crude and can be confusing.

The name of this service says everything you need to know about it. Though Schedule Online is stuffed with collaboration tools--just real-time document sharing and message boards are missing--only its online meeting and resource calendar is worthwhile.

Schedule Online stresses its calendar, which can be shared by designated users and viewed by specified guests. The arrangement means you can give your customers access to the calendar by setting up guest accounts for them. They can then view the calendar without going through Schedule Online's registration. The calendar offers other time-saving shortcuts too. To schedule a meeting, for instance, you click a time slot and enter the particulars.

On the downside, many of Schedule Online's other tools have crude forms or lack extras that some of the other free collaboration sites provide. For example, the site's document publishing tool allows you to control file access, but it displays a bare-bones list of files on the server and won't let you rename the file or add descriptive text.www.scheduleonline.com* WEBEXOffers real-time application and document sharing.

Free application sharing is limited to 10 minutes per session, users can meet with only three others at a time.

Though WebEx does have online office options, with group calendar, an address book, and file sharing, its specialty is its slick virtual gatherings. At WebEx meetings--designed to accommodate up to four people--participants can cooperatively view and annotate documents, exchange chat messages, give slide-style presentations, and run an application on one PC that shows up on the displays of the other attendees.

Other services rely on downloads for sharing documents, but WebEx stresses dynamic meetings where everyone can contribute simultaneously. The person running the meeting loads a document, Web page, or application, and the other participants can view it on their monitors. At any time during the meeting, the host can transfer control to another attendee, enabling that person to display documents. Meanwhile, anyone who likes can type comments into the chat window available for that purpose.

When you review documents in real time or share applications across WebEx, the response time--the amount of time it takes for the screen to redraw with changes--depends on the speed of your Internet connection. But even when we used it over a standard 56-kbps analog connection, WebEx continued to perform with spectacular speed.

For most meetings, the free deal should suffice, but if you find that you need to meet with more than three others or if you expect to host an application-sharing session for longer than 10 minutes, you must provide a credit card up front and pay 15 cents for each meeting minute (a new fee structure should be out now).www.webex.comFree Storefronts"Originally I went with a [for-pay] e-commerce service," says Glenn McComber, a partner in Breaker Spot, a Sarasota, Florida, firm that sells alarm systems and other electrical products. "I had to hire someone to develop the site, and it was always a problem getting across what I wanted. But within minutes I was setting up my own site on Bigstep."

Taking a small business onto the Web may generate extra income, but getting it there can give you headaches and siphon money out of your pocket. Even low-cost Web storefronts like Yahoo Store and ICat may require a bigger financial commitment than fledgling operations are willing to make to go online.

Free e-commerce services are one way to get your Web feet wet without exhausting your bank account. We tested Bigstep, ECongo, and FreeMerchant to see just how far zero dollars could take us in e-commerce. The answer is that they go as far as taking a customer's credit card number. From there on, the costs add up.

BUILD IT FOR FREE

The best thing about building a storefront with a free service like Bigstep, ECongo, or FreeMerchant is that you don't have to know HTML. Like fee-based storefronts Yahoo Store and ICat, the freebies let you pick a design template, enter basic information, and set options like accepted methods of payment. If you're assembling a retail-like storefront, you then create a catalog and fill it with descriptive text and digital images. The store's underlying commerce features--the shopping cart, order forms, and tax and shipping calculations--are usually set up by the service. Other tools range from site traffic reports to assistants that register your site with several search engines.

Each free e-commerce service shows its true colors in the details. Bigstep's strong point, for instance, is its easy setup: A step-by-step wizard and a convenient checklist of to-do tasks lead you through store making.

FreeMerchant, meanwhile, excels at back-office tasks: It's the only free host that tracks inventory and lets you integrate your online store with QuickBooks, the small-business accounting program. ECongo doesn't distinguish itself in any specific area.

Though some fee-based e-store hosts limit the number of products you can put in your catalog or make you pay more to build a beefier online inventory, the services we looked at let you add all the items you want to your sales list.

Bigstep does, however, limit each user's image file storage space to 12MB.

WHAT A DEAL!

what's the catch? To make money on the deal, ECongo plans to sell small ads on

its members' sites. Bigstep and FreeMerchant plan to provide unspecified

fee-based services to members or partner with suppliers like OfficeMax.

Though these services don't charge a dime to put a store on the Web, they do impose some costs--specifically, credit card transaction fees. To process credit card orders, you have to pay to set up a merchant account; there's also a charge for each credit card transaction. Be sure to investigate each hosting service's merchant account setup and transaction charges before you decide where to open shop. Prices range from Bigstep's charges of $15 per month (with no setup fee) and 20 cents per transaction to FreeMerchant's $399 software charge, $45 monthly fee, and 35-cent surcharge per transaction.

Despite such costs, these services' gratis storefront hosting, virtual shopping carts, and other complimentary tools are nothing to sneeze at. Again, consider all your options before diving in.

* BIGSTEP.COM

Outstanding step-by-step wizard for store creation.

Must use service's merchant account for credit card orders.

Bigstep.com isn't such a big step for small businesses eager to try out e-commerce without investing a lot of dollars. Using wizards, Bigstep walks you through site building, catalog creation, and report setup. And Bigstep breaks the process down into tasks and even includes a to-do checklist that tracks what you need to finish. That helps you parcel the job into small chunks you complete as time permits--a major selling point for people building their store on stolen time.

Bigstep offers 28 design templates for customizing colors and font sizes; you also get a shopping cart for customers to gather their selections and place orders. Finished sites can look as slick as any produced by a professional designer, and the range of options available allows your online presence to look quite different from other storefronts created with the same templates.

But Bigstep's biggest advantage is its suitability for both service- and product-oriented businesses. While ECongo and FreeMerchant are basically online catalog generators, Bigstep's designs can accommodate small businesses that sell services, rather than goods.

Our biggest complaint--one we heard from several small businesses, as well--is that you must use Bigstep's merchant account partner to get real-time authorization. To its credit, Bigstep's merchant account costs are the lowest of the three we reviewed ($15 per month plus transaction fees), but businesses that already have an account elsewhere won't want to pay for a second. The service's other significant limitation--the 12MB maximum for storing image files--shouldn't create any problems for you unless you plan to post an enormous, picture-heavy catalog.

* ECONGO.COM

In-store search tool, lists your store in a mall-like directory.

Cookie-cutter look, wizard tool is of limited help.

ECongo's store maker is cruder than Bigstep's, and the service lacks the back-office tools that make FreeMerchant appealing.

ECongo does offer the core set of store-building and maintenance tools, including a shopping cart, access to a merchant account (for $40 per month, plus transaction fees), and order processing. It features only six templates, which tend to generate online storefronts that look like cookie-cutter copies.

For instance, all ECongo storefronts share the same navigational toolbar at the top of the screen. What's more, the chore of adding departments and categories or of fleshing out the front page with images and text can be daunting, since the store-making guide effectively leaves you on your own after the basic store is in place.

On the other hand, ECongo does provide a couple of tools that the others omit.

A built-in store search tool, for example, enables customers to jump directly to a product that they are interested in, rather than having to hunt through the entire store. And of the three services we examined, only ECongo collects its members in a business directory designed to drive traffic to your store.

But these attractive perks aren't enough to sway us. We think you can find better help for your e-business than ECongo offers.

* FREEMERCHANT

Imports catalog information from spreadsheets and databases, integrates online ordering with QuickBooks for processing, no catalog size limit.

High credit card transaction fee, obtuse store-building process.

Ambitious entrepreneurs looking to integrate e-commerce with their existing operation will get more from FreeMerchant than from any other free host. It includes the necessary core of store-building tools and lets you stock an unlimited catalog on the Web, but its forte is how it lets users manage their online business.

FreeMerchant is the only free store service that lets you import data from an existing database or spreadsheet to speed up catalog building. It accepts info from 1-2-3, DBase, Excel, FoxPro, and Paradox. It's also the only service that exports order invoices to QuickBooks. And it automatically posts items from your catalog to EBay, the giant online auction site.

Creating your store at FreeMerchant seems unduly hard, however. The 50-plus templates offer color and background variations on a handful of layouts, and at times you're left guessing about the next step to take. As a result, you'll have to fiddle with the storefront layout to finesse it into shape. And FreeMerchant's charge of 30 cents per transaction for credit card authorization (on top of a $40 monthly fee) is the highest of the trio.

FreeMerchant's excellent management tools may be lost on an e-commerce neophyte, but if you want maximum functionality from your free storefront service, this site is your best bet.

Gregg Keizer is an Oregon-based freelance writer. Paul Heltzel is a frequent contributor to PC World.

GOTCHA WATCH

BIGSTEP'S SMALL PRINT

WHEN IT COMES TO FREE RIDES for your business, every service (even our favorites) has its hidden costs. For an idea of what to look out for, here's a closer look Bigstep.com.

TO TAKE ONLINE credit card orders, you must use Bigstep's merchant account, at $15 per month, plus $0.20 per transaction and 2.67 percent of the purchase price.

BUILDING A STORE online isn't an overnight job. The small businesses we talked to spent six weeks on average creating their store designs.

THIS HOST'S terms of service warn that "Bigstep.com does not guarantee that its security procedures will prevent the loss of, alteration of, or improper access to, your information."

Best Bets

AMONG FREE COLLABORATION TOOLS, HotOffice is our favorite. Its wealth of features and its emphasis on document sharing make it ideal for any workgroup--despite its pox of advertisements. WebEx gets an honorable mention because, uniquely among free collaboration sites, it lets you conduct real-time virtual meetings in which everyone can share files or programs.

If you want to build an online store for free, Bigstep.com offers the easiest way to get started selling online. Though we don't like FreeMerchant as much, it's well suited for companies that already have a catalog database and want to export data to QuickBooks.

Free Tools You Forgot

FREE COLLABORATION software and a free storefront don't mark the end of the e-commerce gravy train. If you know where to look, you can find a Scandinavian-sized smorgasbord of free goodies for small businesses to plug into their existing Web sites.

1 DISCUSS BUSINESS

If you're currently connecting to customers and clients via a Web site, you can add threaded message boards without spending another dollar. Both Beseen (www.beseen.com) and Server.com (www.server.com) let you insert message boards at your Web site, regardless of the server that hosts it. Beseen even allows you to set up a nice chat room for talking to customers or colleagues.

2 MAIL ME

Everybody and his uncle offers free e-mail accounts. You might as well join the crowd. Sign up with BigMailBox (www.bigmailbox.com), and get an unlimited number of free Web-based e-mail accounts that your customers and coworkers can create and use a la user@yourdomainname.com. You can even customize the mailbox page with your site's background color and add your company logo.

3 EXCHANGE ADS

Your budget doesn't leave you a spare dollar to advertise your new online store, but you want to get out the word? Try Link Exchange's Banner Network (adnetwork.linkexchange.com), the Web's biggest swap-space ad banner coalition.

Here's how it works: You build a banner ad for your business--the site even sports links to free software for creating banners--and in return you agree to post others' banners on your pages. For every two banners that show up on your site, one of yours is displayed on another member's page.

4 INVITE SEARCHES

Unless you want your customers to wander aimlessly through your site, you'll want to add a search function. That way, customers can quickly find what interests them. Both PicoSearch (www.picosearch.com) and Beseen's MySearch (mysearch.looksmart.com) index your pages and provide a link you can stick on your site. The free versions carry conditions and limitations, but they suffice for most small businesses.

5 DEVELOP YOUR FORM

You've managed to create your own Web site, but that's just the beginning. Now you want to capture customer information, and for that you need forms. But programming a form is no trivial undertaking. So why not hand the job over to Response-O-Matic (www.response-o-matic.com)? This slick service walks you through its form-making process, which relies on a fill-in-the-blank template.

Afterward, whenever a customer submits a filled-in form, Response-O-Matic sends the information to your e-mail address. --Gregg KeizerPhoning for FreeTHERE'S A LOT OF TALK ABOUT cheap long distance these days--a dime a minute, a nickel a minute, free weekends. But if your business's monthly phone bill still runs to three figures, you might look at an Internet phone as the perfect solution.

It isn't--at least not yet: Despite continuing improvements in sound quality, none of the Internet phone programs currently available will cause your long-distance carrier to lose sleep. Using a 56-kbps modem, we tested a handful of free programs and services, including Microsoft NetMeeting (www.microsoft.com/netmeeting), Dialpad.com (www.dialpad.com), and HearMe VoicePresence (www.hearme.com). You should keep this in mind, too: Though the services we reviewed don't have a per-minute charge, many others do--especially those that allow calls from your PC to a telephone.

NET PHONES: ALL NET ALL THE TIME

FOR FREE LONG-DISTANCE, it's hard to top Microsoft NetMeeting: The software comes with Internet Explorer, which is itself free. If you have a microphone, talking to other users is fairly easy, and the system's sound quality approaches that of an analog cell phone. If you hook up a camera to your PC, NetMeeting becomes a videophone, though video over a modem is slow and choppy.

NetMeeting will likely appeal most to tech-savvy users who don't mind the requirement of having a PC on both ends.

That said, you can make PC-to-phone calls using NetMeeting, but first you have to configure the program to use a gateway service that routes your call from the Internet to a regular telephone. If that's incoherent to you, you're probably better off with a service such as Dialpad that makes this process simpler.

Dialpad is free and aims to make money by showing you ads when you initiate calls. The service has admirable audio quality, but suffers occasional dropouts and some echoing when used without a headset.

10-4, GOOD BUDDY

HEARME OFFERS Web-based voice chat. Up to 500 people can participate, but only one person can speak at a time. That does not mean you get low-quality sound:

In fact, HearMe's sound quality equaled NetMeeting's. HearMe gives its free VoicePresence service to anyone who wants to add voice chat to a Web site. It's ideal for e-commerce, because it enables visitors to speak directly to online retailers. It also makes sense for people who make regular conference calls in which one person speaking at a time isn't a deal breaker. --Paul Heltzel"RATHER THAN CALLING THE OFFICE FOR DOCUMENTS WE ALL SHARE, IT'S EASIER TO LOG IN TO HOTOFFICE AND ACCESS [THEM]."

Peter Leshaw, Miami, Florida

"IF YOU'D TOLD ME A YEAR AGO WHEN I OPENED MY STORE THAT I'D BE ON THE WEB BY NOW, I WOULD HAVE SAID YOU WERE CRAZY."

John Ettema, Campbell, California

ONE OF THE BEST THINGS about HotOffice is the way it permits users to collaborate on documents and track revisions.

WHEN YOU USE ECONGO to build an online store, the end result is automatically placed in an online mall to help drive traffic to your front door.

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