IntroductionIt used to be that the people who worked together on a project were located under the same roof. Today, they might not be on the same continent. The Internet has enabled workers to scatter like dandelion seeds in a gale, and it isn’t unusual to find yourself working closely with someone you’ve never met in person. Telecommuting is wonderful, but it does introduce complications. How can you proof and comment on page designs and other documents without the delay and expense of couriers? How can you brainstorm in real time without racking up huge phone bills? How can you monitor or control a Web server that’s located a thousand miles away? Several software tools can help you address these issues. Here’s a guide to stocking a remote-collaboration toolbox, and some tips for our favourite tools. "Please comment ASAP".
This is a common request, along with: "Look over the latest brochure layout and get back to me." "Approve the new logo design." "Proof the annual report before tomorrow." These chores used to mean last-minute sprints to the post office or a visit from a hairy motorcycle courier. Then fax machines came along and made their contributions to eyestrain and aggravation. The advent of e mail has made it far more convenient to move documents around, and business software has evolved accordingly – Microsoft Word and Excel, for instance, have features for adding annotations to documents. These sticky-note-like comments don’t appear within a document’s text, but instead show up as small icons. Double-click on an annotation’s icon, and up pops a small window containing the comment. But graphics and design programs generally don’t offer annotation features. And even with Word and Excel, there’s the risk that someone will make changes to a document without letting others know about it. The answer: Adobe Acrobat 4.0. Acrobat has always been a great tool for distributing documents electronically – convert a file into Acrobat’s Portable Document Format (PDF), and then send the PDF to your colleagues, who can review it and print it using the free Acrobat Reader software. Acrobat adeptly preserves the original document’s formatting, even simulating fonts not installed on a recipient’s system. Acrobat 4.0 goes beyond these basics to pack a full array of collaboration tools (see "Acrobat annotated"). Each member of a workgroup can attach annotations to a document and review annotations others have made. Acrobat 4.0 also enables you to mark up a document: you can, for instance, draw a strike-through bar to mark a section of text for deletion, and then attach replacement text by typing it in a pop-up window. Because reviewers are working on a PDF file, and not the original, there’s no worrying about changes to the original file, or over whose copy is the current version. Chat and swap
Annotation features are noteworthy, but they don’t allow for real-time remote brainstorming and collaboration. The telephone does, but can lead to a hefty phone bill. One potential solution is instant-messaging (IM) software. Several free IM programs are available for both the Mac OS and Windows, and although they’re most commonly associated with love-lorn teens, they can be powerful collaboration tools, too. From a telecommuter’s perspective, the best IM software for the Mac is the freeware ICQ (www.icq.com). ICQ’s interface is cluttered and cumbersome at times, but the software has two crucial features: it supports file transfers and URL exchange. Apple is planning to collaborate with AOL to produce an instant messaging standard. Remote nirvana
ICQ does the job for occasional telebrainstorming, but if remote collaboration is a big part of your work life, go all the way to Timbuktu. Available for both the Mac OS and Windows, Netopia’s Timbuktu (£149; SQP IT UK, 01582 673 000) provides first-rate chat and file-exchange features and even an intercom mode that lets you chat using your vocal cords instead of your hands. But these goodies are only side-dishes; Timbuktu’s main course is remote observation and control. Outfit two or more computers with Timbuktu, and each user can watch the others’ screens, or even control other computers via a modem, local network, or the Internet. You get real power by combining remote observation with Timbuktu’s chat, intercom, and file-exchange features, as in the following example: "I’ve got the latest layout on my screen. What do you think?" "Change the headline font to Ransom Note Bold." "OK. How’s that?" "Good. And by the way, I rescanned the photo. I’m sending you a revised version now." This live collaboration is faster than annotating and emailing PDFs. It’s almost like sitting alongside a colleague, except you can’t catch his or her cold. One of the beauties of Timbuktu is its support for multiple platforms and protocols. You can tap into other Macs on your network via AppleTalk, or you can use the Internet to tap into remote Macs or Windows machines using TCP/IP. You can even mix and match within a single chat window, connecting to local Macs via AppleTalk and remote machines via TCP/IP. (For more tips, see "Telecommuting with Timbuktu"). Another way to approach this kind of collaboration is by using a bridge or router, which is used to link two Apple networks. This allows you to join another network seamlessly, either as an individual or an entire remote network. There are, though, problems with some of the available bridges. This is because the ISDN line used as the link is called up automatically when there is any network activity. On Apple networks, this can be costly, because – as the server checks that other servers are working – they generate a preponderance of low-level network activity. Such activity can include OS 8’s insistence on checking regularly the contents of other network users’ wastebaskets. Unsurprisingly a normal router does not hold this information, so the ISDN line is dialled immediately to check. Only one company, JPY, has found a way around this problem: ISDNShare (JPY, 0181 390 8487). It costs £500 for the software and £495 for the router. JPY is alone in managing to crack the problem of "spoofing" AppleTalk. Spoofing is a tactic used by PC bridges to reduce network traffic between sites. ISDNShare works via routers at each site that kick in when a server issues a request to check that the other site is working. Instead of calling up the other site, the router simply replies with the equivalent of "chill". This will work until the server poses a question that the router can’t answer with its store of information. At this point, the ISDN line is dialled, so that the machines can talk directly. Only ISDNShare has been able to overcome this and other peculiarities to successfully spoof AppleTalk. The package consists of a 3Com OfficeConnect Remote, plus the ISDNShare software. As a router, it can be accessed by an individual or an entire network, and can be configured to link to other ISDNShare routers, or even the Internet. You can permanently keep a remote volume – maybe your hard disk at work – on your desktop. The only time the connection dials up is when you are copying to or from the volume. When used with the Internet, ISDNShare can mount volumes from machines on the other side of the world – at the cost of a local call. You can also share databases, cutting down the need for synchronizing separate records. One of the most useful things in the graphics industry is being able to print remotely. You can send to printers or image setters simply by selecting them through the Chooser. In fact, all remote volumes and printers are accessed via the Chooser, so no special networking knowledge is required. Hopefully, it won’t be long before we needn’t fret about the cost of remote working. The technology is already here but the price of telephone calls remains an issue. ISDN is faster, but no cheaper. But another option should be available by next year – ADSL. This promises continuous networking, no dial-ups and no per-minute charges. For remote access, it is these features that are more important than bandwidth. However, the bandwidth of ADSL is huge compared to the average modem or even ISDN dial-up link. With a little luck, this service may reduce the cost of alternative ways of connecting to the Internet.