Sales Results. Cost breakdowns. Inventory reports. A few mouse clicks can give you more data about what’s going on in your company than Captain Kirk gets from the control panel of the starship Enterprise.
But go on a business trip and you might as well be in another galaxy. Mr. Big Customer wants to see the revised production schedule when you meet in his L.A. office in an hour. Unfortunately that file is on your hard drive in New York, and at 6 p.m. there’s no one around to email it. If this were a movie you would use your laptop to hack into your office computer and download the file, but if there’s a way to do this in real life, you don’t know about it. And this is supposed to be the Information Age?
Business owners increasingly rely on digital information to run their companies. Near-real-time data helps them spot trouble and seize opportunities. This trend, coupled with a more mobile management style, is driving a search for easier ways to access data remotely. If you want to have your data and travel, too, here are suggestions:
1. Take It With You
The venerable floppy disk has served millions of travelers well, and it’s still hard to beat the simplicity of tucking a physical copy of your data in a pocket or purse. In an era of 300-gigabyte drives, the floppy’s 1.44-megabyte capacity seems quaint. But that’s a 500-page Microsoft Word document, which is plenty for many people. If you want to take, say, everything associated with a particular project, you can pack the equivalent of 50 floppies’ worth of data onto a CD. Tiny flash drives that plug into your computer’s USB port are more convenient and faster, especially if you get one that conforms to the high-speed USB 2.0 specification. They are available in capacities ranging from 32 megabytes to more than 1 gigabyte. You can get a 256-megabyte model for as little as $60.
My wife and I were recently on a short vacation celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary at a hotel. Before leaving for vacation, I downloaded a few files, including this article, from my computer to my USB drive. At the hotel I used my IBM Thinkpad notebook computer to access this article and other files from the USB drive.
Although these media transfer solutions work for many scenarios, ensuring that data is synchronized on the computers you use can be a pain. If you edit data at a client’s office you have to remember to save it to the disk or CD and then update every other location where that data resides.
If accessing email is of particular importance to you and you can’t access it via a website provided by your company or Internet service provider, Forward Solutions Migo and Key Computing’s X-key make “intelligent” USB flash drives that synchronize your computer’s Microsoft Outlook email to a USB key. When you work remotely you can use Microsoft Outlook to read and reply to your email via the Migo or X-key USB drive just as if you were using Microsoft Outlook and viewing email at your office.
COST: $1 or so for floppies and recordable CDs; $30 to $500 or more for USB flash drives.
2. Try a Little PDA
Your personal digital assistant (PDA) is another good solution. Right now I’m sitting on the No. 4 subway in New York City, typing this article into my Palm using a folding keyboard. When I get to my computer I’ll upload the article to the Palm Desktop on my big computer, paste the text into an email program or Word, and send it to my editor. Many PDAs allow you to type directly into an email that syncs with your computer.
You can also use a PDA to access corporate data, an ideal solution for sales staff or executives that need access to databases or other information. Some solutions, like the one I use, are very simple and your only expense is the cost of the PDA, while others will be more expensive and require the services of a consultant.
In many cases you’ll need to install extra software on your office computer or server to enable communication between your PDA and another program such as an inventory database. If your PDA has wireless or wired Internet connectivity you may be able to access the inventory data in real time. Otherwise, you’ll synchronize the data between your PDA and the office computer or server when you return to the office.
COST: $150 on up for PDAs. Prices for connectivity solutions vary greatly.
3. Transfer It from Afar
Attaching files to emails is a good way to move data around quickly. But larger files — say, 5Mb or more -— can quickly clog the sender and receiver’s email boxes and may exceed the limits of free email services such as Hotmail and Yahoo.
In those cases, you’re better off using FTP (file transfer protocol), a free solution that lets you to move files from your computer to an online server and vice versa. I know a graphics designer in Canada who uses FTP to send large graphics files to clients. Recipients must have their FTP application to access the FTP server and download the graphic file to their own computer.
Remote control software enables you to use one computer to take over another and interact with it as though you were sitting in front of it. You can use a Web-based service like gotomypc.com or remoteexplorer.com, which lets you work through a Web browser, or you can buy and install an application like Symantec’s PC Anywhere. Remote control works best with a broadband connection; doing it through a dial-up link can be slow.
author of the book Technology Solutions for Growing Businesses, and a frequent speaker on technology issues. He can be contacted at