In recent years, the local-area network has become a commonplace of corporate life. Whether it uses a powerful computer called a server as the focal point or simply lets computers talk directly to each other, a net is a potent tool. Workers who once used typewriters or mainframe terminals now log in to the LAN to exchange E-mail, retrieve information from corporate databases, or send files to a networked laser printer.
But networks remain rare in some locations, from the increasingly common two-computer home to small businesses, even to small branch offices of major corporations. According to industry analyst International Data Corp., 87% of U.S. enterprises with more than 1,000 em-
ployees have LANs. That drops to 51% for establishments with 50 to 99 workers and 32% for those with 10 to 19. The reason is simple: Most networks are too expensive and complicated, demanding more in hardware and, especially, skilled administration than tiny organizations can afford.
PAIN-FREE. A new version of Artisoft's LANtastic networking system should change the small-office landscape by bringing the ability to hook up computers and share data, programs, and printers within the reach of everyone. Simply LANtastic, the latest addition to a product line that has dominated the low end of the personal-computer market since its introduction in 1987, approaches the sort of painless networking that has long been built into Apple Computer's Macintosh hardware and software.
Unlike Novell's NetWare, which claims two-thirds of the worldwide LAN market, LANtastic does not require that a computer be set aside to act as a central file server--not to mention $700 for a minimum five-user software license and at least $100 apiece for network adapters. Simpler networks, such as Microsoft's Windows for Workgroups, usually require users to make confusing configuration decisions and work with fussy coaxial cables.
Simply LANtastic's startup kit ($299 list) comes with network adapters for two computers, a connecting cable, and software. You have to open your computers to plug in the adapters (external adapters are available for an extra $50 each, but they may leave you with no place to attach a printer). Simply LANtastic can handle up to 30 computers.
Because I have considerable experience in setting up networks, I handicapped myself by attempting to set up a Simply LANtastic network without looking at the slender instruction manual. The hardest part of the job was getting the covers off the machines. The adapter cards pop in with no fuss. And don't worry about those specialized and often difficult cables used to hook up other networks--including regular LANtastic. Simply LANtastic uses miniature phono plugs, such as those on a Walkman. Within five minutes, the two computers were set up so that they could read each other's hard disks from both Windows and DOS, send messages using a basic E-mail program, and send documents to a printer connected to one machine.
INSECURE. The idiot-proof nature of this setup comes at some cost. It's a bit too easy to knock out the network by accidentally disconnecting a cable. Remote printing can be painfully slow, especially when producing graphic images from Windows. And LANtastic lacks the security features of more sophisticated systems, basically assuming the network is being used by honest folks.
Linking computers should continue to get simpler. Networking software is built into Chicago, Microsoft's upcoming replacement for Windows. The new "plug and play" standard should eliminate the guesswork and frustration of configuring network cards. Some computer makers are even following the Mac lead and shipping machines with built-in networking hardware. But you needn't wait. Simply LANtastic links even the smallest two-computer office--or just the kids who want easy access to the laser printer on mom's computer.
BULLETIN BOARD SECURITY CHARGE IT--WITHOUT WORRY
The use of wireless communications technology is making it safer for diners to pay with credit cards in restaurants. The new Folio device from VeriFone, a manufacturer of credit-card-verification gear in Redwood City, Calif., makes it possible for you to settle your bill without ever letting go of your card. The waiter brings the calculator-size Folio to your table with the check. You run your card through a swipe reader, verify the bill, and punch in a tip and total.
The waiter takes the Folio to a VeriFone terminal and dumps the information over an infrared link. The terminal gets authorization from the credit-card company and spits out a receipt. In addition to providing greater security, the device allows use of bank ATM cards because the user can punch in a personal identification number.
COMMUNICATIONS NEW, IMPROVED E-MAILBOXES
E-mail could get easier for users of Internet mail or other programs based on the Unix operating system. Pronto for Windows ($99) by CommTouch in San Mateo, Calif., brings to Unix the sort of mailbox management that's available on CompuServe and other commercial services. The program lets users download their mail and read, sort, and compose messages while