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Business






Posted on Sun, Jul. 06, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
How technology is changing business

bgarcia@herald.com

During the go-go years of the Internet boom, many predicted that the Internet and the technology attached to it would revolutionize business.

Now, with the benefit of some hindsight, the impact of the wired world is easier to see.

Yes, some truly unique businesses, which were barely a twinkle in their founders' eyes a decade ago -- Amazon.com and eBay.com -- are now household names. But the Internet and technology it has advanced haven't spawned scores of new businesses. The real revolution is in how business is done. Today's technology is being used to increase efficiency and productivity, share information with customers and employees, and drive sales and marketing.

The transformation can be seen in a tiny design and print shop, an international shipper that moves 13.3 million packages and documents around the world each day, and the United States' federal court system.

Take Design Majik, a design and printing company in Fort Lauderdale. It prints primarily brochures, business cards, flyers, and direct mail pieces. Today, 99 percent of its work is done over the Web.

With a broadband connection, orders are submitted online. Design work done outside is shipped in via e-mail. In-house design work is proofed online. When it's ready, customers are notified via e-mail that they can go to the company's secure website to review and approve the work online or make changes.

Orders now are usually printed and shipped in two days. Before it took about six days, says Jaysen Moore, the company's president.

The Internet has dramatically extended the company's reach, adds Moore. It has clients in Anchorage, Alaska, and San Juan -- and many locations in between.

Design Majik is now developing an application that will give clients even more access over their work orders via the Web. They'll be able to track their progress, select shipping methods and review past orders.

Yet, this company doesn't have a cadre of IT people. It has 15 staffers. Moore says that because much of the programming is based on the Linux operating system, which is open-sourced, plenty of information and resources exist on the Internet to help resolve problems or design questions.

Rob Lancaster, who follows Internet business strategies for the Yankee Group, a Boston research firm, says businesses, both small and large, are taking advantage of the Internet's ``empowering technology.''

Small companies, such as Design Majik, can reach and ''expand'' by spending a few thousand dollars on hardware, software and a website, giving them access to greater sales across the country and around the world.

Lancaster adds that the Web offers ''natural collaborative ability'' so that a company with far-flung operations can have its staffers work efficiently and collectively even when they aren't all under the same roof. In that way, it makes a large corporation feel like a much smaller community to work in.

Web-based software and information are major drivers deploying technology, says Pat Bennett, executive vice president & general manager for Covad Broadband Solutions, based in Baltimore.

At North Florida Sales, an Anheuser-Busch distributor in Jacksonville, the company has made its sales data available via the Web so it can be downloaded to Pocket PCs by sales reps in the field. That way, they can analyze how different products are selling as they visit with each client -- whether it be a convenience store or a major supermarket chain.

Being able to analyze sales trends -- with just one day of lag time rather than a whole month -- gives them a better handle on how to restock merchandise and how to best allocate precious shelf space, says Gregg Pettit, the facility's manager.

The goal, says Pettit, is to have the sales data available in real time and make the whole process wireless for the sales reps by 2005.

CUTTING COSTS

What's happening at North Florida sales is reflected in the Yankee Group's 2002 Doing Business on the Internet survey, which showed that 67 percent of the 600 companies surveyed saw customer service and support as well the need to provide information to staff and clients as the primary reasons for having company websites. Cost-cutting benefits are also high on the list of priorities.

This is a dramatic shift from the late 1990s, when the Internet rush was in full swing. In the firm's 1998 survey, increasing sales from current and new customers, as well as branding and marketing, were the key drivers.

To be sure, using technology can have a downside. Companies can increase their productivity and efficiency. That compels firms to do more with less, meaning layoffs for the workforce.

But, for now, most firms are enjoying the upside.

UPS' increasing deployment of wireless technology is the kind of effort the Yankee Group's survey last year identified.

The world's largest shipping and packing company is testing new wireless devices that utilize Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies at its Hialeah plant and four other facilities. It's part of a five-year plan of developing and deploying technology that will eventually cost UPS about $120 million.

SCANNER RINGS

The clerks who move packages on and off trucks and around these facilities wear oversize rings that come equipped with scanners and use Bluetooth technology, an inexpensive radio innovation that lets cellphones, notebooks and other devices speak to each other wirelessly within 30-foot radii. The scanners' data are transmitted to terminals that are about the size of large beepers and that are attached to the clerks' belts.

The terminals send the data over a Wi-Fi network to servers in the facilities. Wi-Fi, which stands for wireless fidelity and is also known as 802.11b, is an inexpensive and popular networking standard that uses an unlicensed portion of the radio spectrum. From the local servers, the package travels over land lines to UPS' massive databases in Atlanta or Mahwah, N.J. The information allows customers to track packages over the Internet or by phone.

The improvement: Clerks can now do 60 scans per minute -- about twice as many as before. Plus, there are no broken or tangled cables like on the old scanners, and longer-life batteries last an entire five-hour shift.

The development and deployment of this technology will cost UPS about $120 million, from start to finish, over a five-year period, according to the company.

But the decision to go this route wasn't about just using cutting-edge technology; it was based on business initiatives: enhancing productivity, efficiency or customer service.

IN THE COURTROOM

The business of law has also latched on to technology. These days, prosecutors and defense attorneys don't do opening statements and closing arguments; they do multimedia presentations, using PowerPoint, video and audio clips, closeups of important documents and photos of key pieces of evidence.

Al Lindsay, an attorney in the Miami office of Hogan & Hartson, says that the boards that many attorneys used to present a case's timeline or highlight key documents often cost $250 or more each to prepare -- and that most attorneys never bring just one board to a trial.

Lindsay, who worked at Miami's Steel Hector & Davis LLP until recently, says that firm made the decision to incorporate technology about four years ago.

Usual equipment for a trial or a deposition these days: a laptop and a digital overhead projector, which is about the size of Webster's hard-cover dictionary. If needed, an attorney can bring six flat-screen monitors if monitors aren't already available in a courtroom.

Steel Hector's initial tech investment was about $4,500, including the laptop, digital projector and a digital display, known an Elmo.

The firm, which has a mock courtroom where its attorneys can practice their presentations, is considering buying another laptop and projector set for litigators to use in trials and depositions, since the first set in high demand.

Clarence Maddox, clerk of the court for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District, says the new courthouse under construction in Miami will eventually have 14 courtrooms equipped with Internet access for the lawyers, document cameras, overhead projectors, laptop projectors at the lawyers' table and the podium, and monitors for the lawyers, judge and witnesses.

Maddox says federal funding of about $1 million is paying for the technology. Six courtrooms in the Southern District already are considered electronic courtrooms.

Bennett at Covad sees untethered broadband access -- in other words, more extensively wireless Web access -- as the next frontier for businesses.

He says the benefits are obvious, especially for small and medium-size companies: Equipment doesn't have to be hard-wired, and capacity and new equipment can be added easily, quickly and inexpensively.

JET BLUE'S EXAMPLE

If you're looking for an example of how the smart use of technology help the bottom line, consider JetBlue.

In an era when most other airlines are seeped in red ink, this low-cost carrier has a team of more than 500 reservation agents working out of their homes in and around Salt Lake City. The airline, based at John F. Kennedy International Airport, provides the reservation reps with a computer. They pay for the phone lines.

But JetBlue's use of technology doesn't stop there. It's the only U.S.-based carrier to do its ticketing entirely electronically, and more than 30 percent of its tickets are sold online. Some of the high-tech is dedicated to passenger use: 24 channels of live satellite TV at every seat.

No doubt, using technology to lower its operating costs has contributed to the nine profitable quarters JetBlue has posted. Not bad, considering the carrier flew its inaugural flight between JFK and Fort Lauderdale in early 2000.

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