Personal computers make it possible for you to work wherever you are--at home, in a hotel room, even on an airplane. But no matter how carefully you plan, there always seems to be some crucial bit of data that you've forgotten to take with you and that you can get only by connecting to your office machine or network. This is where remote-access programs, a fast-evolving area of software, can be lifesavers.
Remote-access software comes in three flavors--and to make things more confusing, two and sometimes all three of the pieces are combined into single products. Remote file transfer lets you send files to and fetch files from another computer over a phone line. Typical programs for Windows or the Macintosh show the files on the local and remote computers in separate windows and allow you to initiate a transfer by dragging the file from one window to the other.
SPECIAL HARDWARE. Remote-control programs let you use a distant machine as though you were sitting at its keyboard and looking at its screen. Of course, working over phone lines means it will always take a few seconds for the screen to refresh itself, though faster modems and better software technologies are making the delays tolerable. You can hook into your company's network with remote-control software by using it to log your office machine onto the network, but for security reasons, this is not a good idea.
Remote-node software, on the other hand, allows your home computer or laptop to function as though it were connected directly to the office local-area network. The only real difference is that you are linked by a modem, probably with a maximum speed of 28,800 bits per second, rather than a network with speeds of up to 10 million bits per second. But a remote node, unlike the other types of remote access, generally requires special hardware on the network and will only be usable if a network administrator has set it up for you.
If remote network access has been set up for you, you'll have to use the software your administrator has chosen. But if, like most users, you want do-it-yourself file transfer and remote control, you have lots of software choices. My current favorite is Traveling Software's $99 LapLink for Windows, shich combines sophisticated technology with simple setup and an interface that makes it easy to switch between remote-control and file-transfer modes. ReachOut from Stac Electronics is somewhat more difficult to use because it requires running a program before you start Windows. However, an upcoming version, expected to cost around $100, eliminates the problem and adds a number of new features. Symantec Corp.'s $129 PCAnywhere is also a popular choice. In the Mac world, probably the most widely used package is Farallon's $139 Timbuktu.
HEADACHES. Anyone setting up remote access of any sort should be aware of security issues. As soon as your computer can take calls from the outside world, it is at risk. You may find your ability to set up a corporate computer for remote access is limited by company security policies. Microsoft Corp. had planned to give all Windows 95 users the ability to set up dial-in access to office networks but removed the feature after corporate network managers complained about security headaches.
Fortunately, off-the-shelf remote-access packages incorporate a range of security features. At a minimum, you should tell the program to accept calls only from specified users--probably just yourself--and to require a password for all access. If you will always be calling from the same location, perhaps from home, you can set up the software so that it automatically calls you back at a predetermined phone number.
Once it's possible for you to reach your computer, there's a chance someone else can, too. But if you take reasonable precautions, the advantages of remote access far outweigh the risks.