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mhomCAN THERE REALLY BE HARMONY IN A HOME OFFICE OF TWO, THREE, or more? We’d certainly like to think so. Of course, anyone who’s ever tried to work side-by-side with a coworker or spouse in a spare bedroom or converted garage may have his or her doubts.

That’s because the economics of running a home office often demand that you share not only your space, but also your printer, fax, and other essentials. But thanks to networking and hardware-sharing products, it’s easy to make smart use of your equipment–and increase your efficiency.

To help you set up a workspace fit for more than one,¬†we visited three shared home offices from Colorado to California, zeroed in on their problems, and made some process and product suggestions. Although their situations were diverse–from sharing a PC with a spouse to needing to streamline communications to working in a mixed-platform environment–all of our subjects shared a common concern: how to make the most of their office resources.

1. The Situation: One Computer, Two Businesses, Three Kids

Keith and Terri Gray run a tight ship–or rather, two tight ships moored in Austin, Tex. He runs Keith Gray Construction Services, specializing in remodeling and glass etching; she owns Gray’s Internet Consulting an Internet training, design, and maintenance firm. The pair’s problem isn’t so much that both companies are based in the same converted garage–it’s that the Grays share a single computer.

“Keith has his half of the garage and I have mine,” Terri says. But the office doubles as a play area for their three-year-old daughter, and the computer doubles as a research/entertainment center for their teenage daughter–a source of friction for many homeworking families.

The Grays have a classic work environment: a Canon BJC4100 ink-jet printer, a Hewlett-Packard ScanJet 5P scanner, and a Dell Dimension desktop (upgraded from a 486 to a Pentium). But with only 1.2GB of hard-disk space, they’ve pushed their PC to the max. “Now the kids are disappointed because I pulled off the games,” says Terri.

Besides family feuds over the PC, the Grays also tie up their three phone lines–one for each business and one that’s a shared fax/modem line. “When I use the modem,” Terri complains, “either the fax machine or Keith’s business line is down.”

To work around the shortage, “we divide our office time,” Terri explains. “I let Keith have access to the computer in the morning to set up his day.” Then, after Keith heads out to jobs, Terri takes the helm of the family PC.

Besides desperately needing another system, Keith is itching for a laser printer for his decorative glass-etching jobs, which require the use of stencils that can’t be reproduced on the ink-jet printer. At present, he sends scans to an outside company.

So what’s holding the Grays back? Cost. “We need the best for the least amount of money, because our businesses are small and we have kids to feed,” says Terri.

The Solution: A Low-Cost Networked PC

To help the Grays select a new system on a limited budget, we turned to Richard Malloy, managing director of CurtCo Freedom Group Technical Labs, for advice. Fortunately, with system prices plummeting, the Grays will be able to pick up a powerful system for a song. Compaq, for instance, offers its Presario 5030, a 300MHz Pentium II desktop complete with 64MB of RAM and an 8GB hard disk, for a low $1,299 (800-888-5858, www.compaq.com). The “Web storefront vendor iDot.com sells a comparably equipped 400MHz system for $1,599 (888-388-iDOT, www.idot.com). Considering the Grays’s graphics-intensive work, Malloy suggests outfitting either system with a 17-inch monitor such as Optiquest’s Q71 (800-843-6784, www.optiquest.com), available via mail order for as little as $319.

For making copies of Keith’s glass-engraving stencils, a Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 6Pse (800-752-0900, www.hewlett-packard.com) is also recommended. If they shop around, they could find it for about $800. Best of all, the 6Pse includes networking features that will be useful in the future when Keith’s business expands.

To speed up Terri’s Web designs, she sorely needs a faster connection to the Internet. The most cost-effective solution is an ISDN line with 128Kbps throughput. Installation through Southwestern Bell costs $78, with monthly service running about $52 if the Grays sign up for two years (plus long distance charges). Is the expense worthwhile? You bet. The additional line will save Terri time; their teenager can research assignments faster; and Keith’s business line will no longer be disabled. For a reasonably priced ISDN modem, Malloy recommends 3Corn’s US Robotics Sportster ISDN 128K internal unit (800-638-3266, www.3com.com), selling for as low as $200.

If they want to take full advantage of their new resources, our tech expert strongly suggests that the Grays network the two PCs. The most inexpensive approach is to connect the systems with a $20 serial cable, then use Windows 95/98′s direct cable connection wizard under the Accessories tab. This will let the couple exchange files and share the new printer without the expense of network adapters. The downside: The connection can be slow, especially when printing. Should the Grays need more speed, they can later install Ethernet networking cards in both PCs for roughly $200.

Another benefit of networking is that it lets the kids and Terri share a single Internet connection in the evenings. With StarTech’s Internet Sharing Software (800-265-1844, www.startechcomp.com; $20 for two PCs), two homeworkers can log on simultaneously using one modem, one phone line, and one Internet account. Although Internet Sharing Software is perfect for when Terri’s work conflicts with her surfing teenager’s, there’s one glitch: Each PC must have its own IP address, which requires networking know-how to set up.

Finally, even when the second computer is installed, the Texas family is likely to continue sharing systems to some extent. In order to prevent kids from accidentally deleting files or changing the PC’s setup, we suggest loading Citadel Technology’s WinShield (214-520-9292, www.citadel.com; $69), which will serve as an automated system administrator.

2. The Situation: Communications Overload

“The first year in the same home office was terrible,” says Barbara Kalkis of the launch of her company, Maestro Public Relations, in 1995. “My husband and I had one desk with one computer, and we’d compete to see who’d get to it first.”

But after converting a spare bedroom in their Belmont, Calif., house to an office built for two, self-described workaholics Barbara and Ken Kalkis (a computer programmer and systems analyst who co-owns Pacific Business Software) have restored harmony in their home. “It’s great now,” says Barbara. “The room looks like an office, functions like one, and we work as we would with complete strangers in an ordinary business setting.”

The fact that the Kalkises service high-tech businesses in Silicon Valley is reflected in the couple’s inventory of equipment, which reads like the contents of a super computer store. They have two home-built Pentium desktops in their office, a third in the dining room, and a 486-based server in the garage that runs their Novell NetWare 3.12 network. For Barbara’s mobile computing needs, a Hitachi VisionBook Pro laptop sits on the coffee table in the living room.

In addition, the couple has a Brother 6550MC multifunction fax machine, an HP LaserJet 4MPlus laser printer, an Epson PhotoStylus color ink-jet printer, a Canon office copier, a DAT tape backup device, a Smart and Friendly CD-RW drive for making CD-ROMs, a paper shredder, and three scanners (a Umax flatbed, a Corex business card scanner, and a Visioneer PaperPort).

While the Kalkises’s equipment has expanded since their startup, so have their communications needs. Barbara maintains a CompuServe e-mail account, because of its international reach and popularity among her clients. Ken has accounts with Pacific Bell for Internet access.

With all this connectivity and equipment, what could we possibly recommend? First, it’s clear the duo’s businesses have invaded the rest of their home and lives, so they need to streamline their operations. More important, they suffer from information overload. Barbara averages “40 to 50 e-mails a day,” and the phone rings 24 hours. “We’re always answering the phone,” Ken confesses, “even on weekends.” Sometimes that means fielding clients’ questions at 5 a.m. to accommodate international time differences. To keep in touch, the Kalkises use two Uniden Extend-a-Phone 900MHz cordless phones around the house and Plantronics headsets at their desks.

Indeed, with `round-the-clock calls and computing devices sprouting in every room, the Belmont business owners need help coordinating their communications without eating up living space.

The Solution: Build a Virtual Office

It doesn’t require an expert to see that the Kalkises should launch their own Web site. And by sharing the same site between their businesses, Ken can do some cyber-marketing for Pacific Software and give his business an online presence, while Barbara can point prospects to her informative site to cut back on phone calls. In fact, she says, clients have already asked where to go to download materials such as industry updates and boilerplate documents. Receptive to our suggestion, Barbara realizes she’ll also reduce the number of e-mail queries.

One easy solution is to hire an Internet service provider to host the Kalkises’s site. By letting the ISP store their pages on its server, manage their database, arrange e-mail accounts, track traffic, and provide 24-hour World Wide Web access, the couple can outsource some of the site maintenance work. MindSpring (800-719-4332, www.mindspring.com), which will help you post a home page within a couple of hours, charges a setup fee of roughly $140 and a monthly service charge of about $20 (depending on the amount of storage space required and traffic volume).

Alternatively, the Kalkises could launch and design their own site with a minimum of fuss using Microsoft’s FrontPage 98 (800-490-9400, www.microsoft.com; $149). Best of all, this easy-to-use package won’t force them to master HTML programming.

Either way, we strongly recommend the couple get their own domain name, providing separate e-mail addresses through one ISP. Using an e-mail filtering package like Qualcomm’s Eudora Pro (800-2-EUDORA, www.qualcomm/eudora.com; $39), Ken and Barbara can share the expense of the site and still have such addresses as PacificSoftware@Kalkis.com and Maestro@Kalkis.com.

To make Ken’s office even more virtual, we suggest he invest in a portable computing device. Although a full-blown laptop is overkill for his needs–and he finds palmtops “slow and annoying”–a handheld computer such as NEC’s MobilePro 750C (800-632-4636, www.nec.com; $799) is a smart option. It weighs less than two pounds, includes a fullcolor screen, and comes with a keyboard that’ll let Ken generate invoices onsite at client jobs. Furthermore, with the MobilePro’s built-in 33.6Kbps modem, he can check e-mail or download files from his Web site before returning to his home office headquarters.

3. The Situation: Mixed-Platform Partners

High in the Rocky Mountains, Alison and Dan Golan built their dream house–and working hideaway. From Montrose, Colo. (an hour outside of Tenuride), they telecommute to work, which allows them the freedom to mountain bike at lunch in the summer and cross-country ski in the winter. Alison’s a public relations consultant; Dan’s a software programmer for HIE, a software integration firm in Atlanta, Ga.

To maintain telecommuting tranquility, the Golans decided to avoid the headaches of a shared office by, well, not sharing. “We knew we’d never be able to do it,” says Alison. The Golans realized that Alison’s constant phone chatter would disturb Dan’s programming concentration. So their offices are located next to each other, on a separate floor from the main living area.

Most of the couple’s equipment is separate, as well. Dan has a Dell Dimension running Windows NT, an IBM RS6000 workstation running AIX 4.1, and a Windows-based 486 clone. All three PCs are hooked up via a simple Ethernet network. Alison computes on a Macintosh Performa 476, which isn’t on the home LAN, and prints out press releases on a Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 5MP. But even with separate offices, the two share some equipment, she admits: “Dan uses my fax line, and he’s connected to my printer.”

Given their remote location, the Golans rely heavily on the phone, fax, and e-mail. They have three phone lines in the house, plus a T1 Internet connection for Dan, and each has a separate Internet account. And although Alison’s 28.8Kbps modem works fine for managing e-mail messages, she’s often frustrated by surfing the World Wide Wait.

But the biggest issue for Alison is struggling to work on a Mac in a Windows world. “I’m thinking of changing [to a Windows-based PC], because a lot of my clients are on Windows systems,” she confesses. In addition, she needs to better manage her vital PR contacts. “I have numbers everywhere.”

The Solution: Make the Switch to Microsoft

Despite their foresight in creating separate work environments, the Golans are not maximizing their network and office space.

For starters, Dan’s already running Windows NT on one system, so if he upgrades the server software (about $129), he can easily add Alison’s Performa to the network. Another possibility is Miramar Systems’s PC MacLAN for Windows NT (800-862-2526, www.miramarsystems.com), a $219 program that lets Windows users see and swap files with Mac users. However, setting up Alison’s system so it can share all their peripherals can be tricky, warns Malloy. His advice to the Golans: Abandon the Apple and pick up the most powerful Windows 98 PC you can afford, staving off obsolescence for as long as possible.

By buying a Windows PC, Alison’s system can be easily added to the network, which will, in turn, let the Golans share more equipment than they do now. Even better, Alison could jump on the Internet for quick research via the T1 line, even while her husband’s online. Artisoft offers a program called i. Share (800-846-9726, www.artisoft.com; $129) that allows several people working on different PCs to share a single Internet account, phone line, and modem (just make sure you get multiple e-mail addresses through your ISP). The software runs on Microsoft or Novell networks.

If Alison resists Malloy’s suggestion to submit to Windows, she still needs a decent personal information manager for her Mac. Our pick: Now Contact & Up-to-Date 3.6.5 (800-2EUDORA, www.qualcomm.com). For only $100, it’ll be an organizational and time-management godsend. And on a network, it’ll allow her to coordinate who’s responsible for picking up the kids, what hours the nanny will be there, and when the couple can take off for an afternoon of mountain biking. Should she decide to buy a Windows PC, Malloy says, Alison’s best contact management bet is GoldMine.

Because Dan’s paper needs aren’t as crucial as Alison’s, he doesn’t have his own printer. However, that means the couple rely on a single machine that could break down and leave them high and dry in the Rockies. And although walking over to connect to Alison’s fax line sounds like a minor nuisance, it’s an unnecessary interruption. Both issues can be resolved by buying Dan a multifunction color fax/printer/scanner, such as Hewlett-Packard’s OfficeJet 600 ($500), and adding another phone line to his office. Doing so will increase security and prevent distractions.

And, after all, that’s why most people head home to get work done in the first place.

iagbkYour Web site is up and running, but are you interacting with visitors? Adding something as simple as a guest book–an area where users can sign in and volunteer comments and suggestions for your site–gives you a way to offer an entertaining, interactive feature that not only racks up hits, but helps you collect valuable market data and sales leads.

Jack Leigh, a photographer in Savannah, Ga., whose work graced the recent bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, couldn’t agree more. His Southern Images Gallery site includes a simple guest-book feature. “Because of the interest in the book, the movie, Savannah in general, and my cover image, we’re getting a tremendous response to the site,” Leigh says. “And the guest book is a way to gauge the interest of people. We get a lot of comments from the gallery and museum community and many inquiries for prints.”

When users decide to join the fun and sign your guest book, you’ll suddenly have names, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers (or anything else you include in your registry form) to associate with the nameless, faceless surfers that find their way to your site. Even if all a guest book does is allow visitors to drop you a line to tell you how cool they think your site is, you can collect information to take the relationship further. And if you’re lucky, your guest book comments may be so inventive, or even funny, that you’ll also have an endless supply of constantly updated content that other users can browse through to check out who visited your site and what they had to say.

“Sometimes a guest book is the most entertaining part of a site,” says Heide Praver, a senior producer for the Web design firm Visual Radio in New York. “People often get hooked just following the messages, and the more hooked they get, the more likely it is that they’ll decide to go ahead and sign in themselves.”

Checking In

Getting visitors to sign in is the goal of having a guest book–especially since you can ask your visitors for specific information in addition to their general comments. The most important decision you need to make when you implement a guest book for your site is picking exactly what information you want from users before they post a comment or ask a question.

Looking to expand your e-mail promotion list? Require visitors to give you their address before they post a message. Want to know how your new classified ad is doing? Ask them to type in where they heard about your business. Care to find out which search engines your market uses? Query guest book signers for the engines they frequent most.

But be courteous of your visitors’ time. “I made the mistake of asking way too many questions on my guest book when I started out,” says Kimberley Huggins, an image consultant in Springfield, Va. Her Image Advantage site features a guest book that asks users to indicate if they want her to contact them with information as well as requests for key demographics. “I went through the process of weeding it down to just the vital information–about 10 to 15 questions. I needed to pre-qualify any leads and make it as easy as I could for people who were genuinely interested to contact me.”

Your second objective is to make it as painless as possible for visitors to add themselves to your book. Net users are getting savvier, and they’ll shy away if you’ve made it too obvious that you’re not nearly as interested in creating a fun, interactive bulletin board as you are in getting their e-mail addresses so you can spam them later with promotional e-mail.

Leigh, for instance, sorts through visitor comments each week or so and, depending on the level of interest, follows up on leads to print orders via email or fax.

An Open-Book Policy

Setting up a guest book yourself can be tricky if you don’t know CGI scripting. Fortunately, there are services to help you set one up. Take Leigh, a devout non-techie. He worked in partnership with his Internet service provider to develop the site and guest book on a revenue-sharing basis.

Like Leigh, your ISP should also be your first stop. Most have libraries of scripts for common CGI functions like guest books. If your carrier doesn’t offer CGI-based guest books, you can also opt for any number of free, off-the-shelf hosting services, such as GuestWorld (www.guestworld.com) or DreamBook (www.dreambook.com). Simply go to one of these sites, follow the instructions, mount the templates, and your host’s server will do all the CGI work, data capture, and reporting. Your Web site just serves as a front end. The downside: You’re stuck with your host company’s interface, which usually only asks for a name and e-mail address in addition to general comments. The hosting service will also have access to the data your guest book collects. But, if you’re willing to share the wealth, these services can make a lot of sense for home-based operators with limited programming know-how and time.

On the other hand, if your head doesn’t spin at the thought of learning a new computer language, check out the free PERL script libraries at www.perl.com. Image Advantage’s Huggins opted to develop her own guest book. “I initially launched the site with a forum to generate leads, but I was dissatisfied with the response,” she says. “I actually taught myself programming by looking at the source code for other sites and practicing so I could structure a guest book that met my business needs. It’s worked very well for me so far, with about 10 visitors signing the guest book each day–and from as far as Singapore and India.”

The investment of four hours a day for three months to learn the programming has paid off–Higgins’s guest book is now tailored to her operation. “The book is a work in progress,” Huggins adds. “I spent a lot of time getting it to work the way I wanted, and since it represents a significant avenue of response for my business, I spend a good chunk of time–about two hours each day–going through the collected data. I occasionally revamp the questions I ask guests to see if it affects the response rate and quality of the comments.” All told, it took her four months to fine-tune her guest book with the right number and type of questions.

Working the Front Lines

Online Regardless of the data you collect from your Web site visitors, the simple act of adding a guest book to your site opens up possibilities for genuine two-way communication with people in your market. Instead of saying, “Look at me,” an interactive guest book lets you say, “Talk to me.” And isn’t that why you launched your Web site in the first place?

“I’m a computer novice, so using a guest book wasn’t based on a technical need,” says Southern Images Gallery’s Leigh. “We have a `real’ guest book here in the Savannah gallery, and I just wanted to reproduce the same experience on the Net. We attract a good response, interesting information, and valuable leads, sure. But I get a kick out of going through the responses, too. We draw a tremendous response from all over the world, especially Ireland. It’s mind-boggling how the Internet allows people who are interested in what you’re doing to communicate with you.”

kcrTELECOMMUTING IS ON THE RISE, and software manufacturers are making sure that their remote access software can handle the traffic. It’s no coincidence that market leader Symantec’s revenues in the first quarter of this year leapt nearly 40 percent over last year’s numbers. With the new features built into today’s remote access programs, people who need to run more than one computer can’t afford not to buy in.

Looking for security? How about software that automatically calls you back when you dial in to prevent anyone else from getting access? Want a program that’s easy to use? How about a view of your other computer’s screen that’s so real you may forget you’re not sitting at that desk?

“Remote access as an idea has hit critical mass,” according to Barry L. Smith, Traveling Software’s product manager for LapLink. “People have caught on to the idea that being away from their desks doesn’t mean they can’t be productive.”

Here’s a rundown of what to look for in the newest software.

Security

You can set Symantec’s pcAnywhere to respond to any incoming call by dialing back a number you set in advance. If someone tries to hack into your system while you’re away, the program disconnects the call and contacts a preset phone number. Many of the top performers, including Compaq Carbon Copy, now include encryption tools so that data sent over the connection is absolutely secure between the two machines. Several even offer virus scanning on the fly. Artisoft’s CoSession Remote 32 (www.artisoft.com; $119) lets you set the level of access different users get to your computer, so that a client can pick up information without jeopardizing the confidential business information you have stored on your PC.

Speed

Why bother sending the whole file when just the updated parts of the document will do? Several products, including CoSession Remote and pcAnywhere, have figured out a way to do just that. Traveling Software’s LapLink, arguably the best in the business for laptop-to-PC remote access, temporarily saves parts of the remote screen picture on your hard drive, so you don’t have to wait for the Recycle Bin icon to download just because you opened a dialog box.

Standardization

If the host PC and the computer you’re dialing in on had different screen resolutions, that used to wreak havoc with how the remote desktop looked on your monitor. And if the color settings were different, it just made matters worse. Now the top programs change those items seamlessly and instantly. Even better, pcAnywhere will scale down the colors you see–even to black and white if you like–to speed up transmission. All show you an amazing replica of what you’d get if you were sitting on the other end. “It’s the sense that you’re there, at your desk,” Smith says. “That’s made a tremendous difference to people.”

Communication

What happens if there’s a person at the other end of your connection? pcAnywhere will let you videoconference with them, and most others will let you have an audio chat. LapLink Tech ($199), aimed at the PC-support industry, has audio chat capabilities; LapLink does not.

Convenience

Most programs mentioned here will let you link two machines through the Internet. Carbon Copy even allows you to connect when both machines aren’t on the Internet all the time. pcAnywhere wins the “most versions on one CD” award. It ships with Windows 95/98/NT, Windows 3.1, DOS, Windows CE, and Web browser plug-in versions. Also, a Web-based twist on remote access software is making an impact: HotOffice allows you to store files on the Web and customize which people get access to what.

Extras

Want to hook in up to 256 users at once? Shift your machine from host to visitor on the fly? Schedule tasks for the graveyard shift and log on long after you’ve gone to bed? Recover files in mid-download if your connection goes south? Check out pcAnywhere, CoSession Remote, Carbon Copy, and LapLink, respectively.

eimtjpIF YOU’RE LIKE MOST PEOPLE, YOU wouldn’t dream of going to bed without making sure the front door is locked. And yet chances are you send sensitive information across the Internet without the slightest regard for security.

“If you e-mail something like a business plan or a legal negotiation, you’re playing with fire if you don’t use encryption,” says Mark Levitt, director of research at International Data Corp., a Framingham, Mass., research firm. It adds a step to the e-mail process, but for some home-based workers, it’s worth it.

In general, encryption software scrambles your e-mail, making it unreadable to anyone other than the intended party. Many popular e-mail programs–including Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express–have basic built-in encryption, but it’s not hacker-proof and it’s not universal. If your e-mail service doesn’t encrypt messages, or if you’re concerned about the level of security it provides, it may be time to look into third-party software.

Here’s how most e-mail encryption programs work: Just like locking and unlocking a door, you encrypt and decrypt files with a key. In this case, the key is a series of digital characters; the longer the key, the more difficult it is to crack. With simple encryption programs, the key consists of a single password shared by the sender and recipient. A more secure method uses both public and private keys. The sender encrypts the message using a public key previously sent by the recipient. To decrypt the message, the recipient uses a private key to which only she has access.

The following three programs, all available for download from the Web, use public key/private key encryption. They also employ digital signing, which verifies that both you and your recipient are who you claim to be.

PGP for Personal Privacy (www. mcafee.com; $39) integrates itself into the menus of Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express, Eudora Pro, and Claris Emailer. It’s slightly more complex to use than other encryption programs, however. InvisiMail is a no-brainer to install and use, and you can send a free, scaled-down version to recipients so they need not buy the program. The downside is slow operation compared to other encryption packages. SynCrypt encrypts messages and any other files on your system with a simple click of a toolbar button. However, it doesn’t automatically encrypt file attachments.

Though it does offer peace of mind, installing and using encryption software takes time and money and isn’t always necessary. “Most e-mail isn’t really sensitive,” acknowledges Levitt. “It might be personal or even embarrassing, but it’s not necessarily worth encrypting.” So before you encrypt your mail, here are some questions to ask yourself.

What is the potential damage if information falls into the wrong hands? Use encryption when it would be harmful to your business if competitors got their hands on the contents of the message. Also, beware of internal prying eyes. For instance, telecommuters should encrypt personnel-related mail sent to the human resources department.

Will others participate? Both the sender and the receiver must install the same encryption program. For home-based workers, that means clients and colleagues must buy in. Telecommuters must convince their MIS department, colleagues, and outside contacts to use encryption.

How much security is necessary? Most e-mail programs with built-in security use the S/MIME encryption protocol. This is a significant deterrent but is breakable by determined hackers. Third-party encryption programs typically use stronger algorithms such as Triple DES and Blowfish.

Will I be sending encrypted messages overseas? The U.S. government limits the export of the strongest encryption software. If you exchange secured messages internationally, make sure your correspondents can legally obtain the encryption program.

imTHE FRIENDLY CHIRP OF AN INCOMING MESSAGE IS music to the ears of any home-based worker hoping to stay in touch. Instant messages–the equivalent of an online chat in which two or more people communicate in real time by typing back and forth–offer substantial benefits: You don’t have to pick up the phone to ask a quick question. You can drop in on a client or coworker even if you’re at home. You can communicate cheaply on the road or even overseas. You don’t have to wait for a client to check her e-mail. And, best of all, you get the software for free.

That’s why increasing numbers of work-at-homers are starting to see instant messaging, or IM, as more than just a chatty pastime for their teenagers. It can be a smart, relevant business tool.

The unique qualities of IM are immediacy and its ease-of-use, says O. Okon III, co-founder of the Chicago online communications consulting company CoPresence. “Face-to-face meetings require coordinating everyone’s schedule, finding a room, preparing an agenda, and recording and distributing minutes. Conference calls have similar coordination issues. Voice mail and e-mail eliminate many of those issues, but introduce new ones: People may not receive a response for days, or may have to play the dreaded phone tag.

“There’s the need to simulate the water cooler effect,” he adds, “where people can serendipitously strike up conversations with their colleagues.”

The instant popularity of America Online’s integrated Buddy List chat led to the incredible growth of instant messaging on the Net. Initially, if you didn’t have AOL, you were out of luck. But now many companies are scrambling to provide IM service to anyone with a PC and an Internet connection.

Here’s how it works: You dial into the Net, and your messaging software automatically registers with one or more servers. You then input the e-mail addresses of those you may want to contact. If they want, they can “ring” you while you’re connected to the Internet. In return, you can see the people you’d like to track. When two people get together, a chat window opens on each screen. You view each other’s typing, live, and most software will allow a group of others to join if you desire. It’s a quick, spontaneous way to talk about the impending package redesign or last night’s episode of Ally McBeal.

The leading IM packages–AOL Instant Messenger, PeopleLink, Ding!, and ICQ –possess similar features, with slight differences here and there. Like the online service itself, AOL Instant Messenger benefits from a smart, simple interface. ICQ offers numerous settings variations that let you personalize the process. And PeopleLink allows you to keep a list of people who’ve added you to their contact list–a nice way of tracking people who are tracking you. Best of all, a 14.4Kbps modem will work just fine for most chat connections.

As more business users discover the benefits of instant messaging, security has become a priority: Your transmissions can now be encrypted, and systems like PeerChat 1.3 now offer direct person-to-person links over the Net, bypassing servers and other possibly weak security links. And more features are waiting in the wings.

“Our vision is to create ways for people who are scattered all over the world to connect and work together very closely,” says Kelly Looney, vice president of marketing for Activerse, the Austin, Tex., company that makes Ding! “We think that buddy lists are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Within these programs, Looney expects multiparty file transfer to become the norm, reliability to increase, voice communication to become more common, and many Internet-ready devices to come loaded with instant messaging software. He feels whiteboards and multiuser games will benefit from instant messaging and are likely to become commonplace.

Also, your instant messaging software will soon be compatible with everyone else’s. About 40 companies, led by Microsoft, got together last fall to push the Rendezvous Protocol, which should be finalized sometime next year. Right now, you need to use the same software as your chat partner. The new media research firm Jupiter Communications predicts that by 1999, that barrier will be gone. And by 2002, it estimates, four of five Internet users will be using instant messaging.