(originally appeared in Small Business Computing, June 1999. Copyright CurtCo Publishing and used by permission.)
One of the best digital applications for small businesses users is to have electronic access to one's desktop contact database. If you've ever been on the road and found out too late that you left important phone numbers on your desktop machine, then you should consider one of several methods to publish your contact list on the web. Provided you are diligent about keeping your records updated, you can track down a colleague or client when you travel.
There are two downsides of maintaining contact lists on the web. First is security: do you want to expose your contacts to the world? If this is a concern, you can password-protect this portion of your website to restrict access, or can hide the URL by not placing any links to it on your web.
And second is that you must (repeat must) be methodical about updates, especially when these arrive in the form of business cards or scribbled notes. If you aren't organized or can't bring yourself to type in the data, then this method could be more trouble than it is worth.
If you do want a desktop-based contact list accessible from the web, here's how to get started.
PICK A PROGRAM. First, choose an application for storing contacts. Steer clear of the various built-in address books of email programs such as Eudora and Netscape, unless you have just a few contacts to keep track of. You could go with either a general database product (like Approach, Access or FileMaker Pro) or use more traditional contact managers (like Symantec's ACT or Microsoft Outlook).
What's the difference? General databases are best if you maintain the data on either a desktop or a full-featured laptop computer. Lotus' Approach is easier to design your database than Microsoft Access.
There are other equally appealing options, such as FileMaker Pro (www.filemaker.com )or Adr_Book from Brown Bear Software (www.brownbearsw.com/adrbook). FileMaker is one of the easiest to use database programs around, and since the 4.0 version it comes with its own web server that is relatively simple to set up. (It also runs on both Windows and Macs.) Adr_Book is just for contacts and runs only on Windows, but also costs only $35. It also comes with a built-in web server too. Within minutes of installing either product, you'll have your own contact list available on the web, and you can specify whether browsing users can update or just search your database. You just a machine that has a constant Internet connection.
Traditional contact mangers like ACT or Outlook are best if you plan to maintain your contact list on a Palm Pilot or Windows CE device. ACT has more fields and functions than mere mortals need, but many swear by it. Outlook does more than contacts: it is Microsoft's window onto the world of Exchange and POP-based Internet e-mail. If your corporation runs Exchange, then use Outlook.
After settling on either a database program or a contact manager, the next step is to import your existing data into the program you've chosen. If your contacts are paper-based, someone has got to type it in. If your contacts are stored electronically, then you'll need to export it in a comma-separated file and import it into Outlook or ACT. Although both products can do this, the process is clunky with each of them, and preparing the file can be tricky.
SMALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Your third decision is what device to carry around to query and update your contacts. Your choices (in order of increasing weight) are the Franklin Rex card, a Palm Pilot, a CDPD phone, or a CE handheld.
Rex (www.franklin.com/rex) comes in two models: an inexpensive one for less than $100 which is just a display device, and a Pro model which does rudimentary input. The Pro isn't really worth the extra money, as you have to scroll through the entire alphabet, character by character, to enter information.
AT&T offers CDPD cellular voice/data phones from Samsung and Mitsubishi. Both connect to AT&T's nationwide PocketNet (www.attws.com/general/pocketnet) service. The service includes its own contact manager and synchronization software, but it is somewhat clunky to use if you have hundreds of contacts. The phone costs $99, plus monthly charges that start at $30 and can go higher, depending on usage.
What about using a Palm Pilot or a Windows CE device? If all you are doing is synchronizing your contacts with a desktop database, they are both relatively easy to use.
With CE, you need to run Microsoft Office applications, including Outlook, to take advantage of the built-in synch tools. With the Palm Pilot, synchronization is pretty much a one-button affair and can work from a number of applications.
SYCH SOFTWARE. Next you need to consider how you intend to synchronize your contacts. There are tools from two major providers: Puma's Intellisynch and Starfish's TrueSynch. Use the Puma software if you have a CE or Palm device. TrueSynch is intended for the Rex card. Both work with a wide variety of data formats, although getting them set up isn't always obvious.
TO THE WEB. One last step is getting the information to a web server. If you are using Outlook or ACT, you'll need to export your files to one of several Internet services to publish your address book. There are quite a few of these around, including MagicalDesk.com, Personal Lycos, Excite's Communities, PlanetAll.com, ScheduleOnline.com, jump.com, mobility.net and eOrganizer.com.
The trouble with these free services is that few offer good methods of synchronizing your data, and some services lack this capability altogether. So, if you are used to the one-button synch of the Pilot and CE devices, it will take some patience to make the web-based updates work properly. In addition, most were designed for users to manually enter contact information one record at a time. If you have only a few names and phone numbers, no problem. But if you have hundreds or thousands of contacts, you'd be crazy to take the time to enter this data, let alone keep it up to date. See sidebar for our recommendations.
One alternative, if you are running Exchange, is to make use of the latest version 5.5, Service Pack 1, which includes the ability to use a web browser to examine your Outlook contacts.
As you can see, there is a lot of work involved in picking the right application and device to run it on and getting it setup and synchronized. But having access to your contacts as you travel is a great business advantage.