If you think e-mail is, well, just e-mail, you haven't gotten the message. True, these programs aren't the sexiest in the world--which is why a lot of people just stick with what comes on their PCs. But if you haven't checked out e-mail programs in a while--or ever--you should. "Messaging" these days means much more than zipping electronic telegrams around. E-mail programs have become multimedia management tools that can actually help you run a business better. In fact, updates have been released for each major program in the last year that improve everything from coordinating meetings to screening out spam.
The tricky part is figuring out what makes each one different, other than prices, which range from free to $109. On the surface, Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook 2000 appears no more adept at sending and receiving basic messages than Netscape's Messenger, or Lotus cc:Mail. But on closer inspection, these programs have different strengths and weaknesses that appeal to different cultures.
For example, Richard Woest, the information technology manager for Commercial Property Services, based in Santa Clara, Calif., a year ago replaced QuickMail, developed by CE Software Inc., with Qualcomm's Eudora Pro 4.2. The appeal was simplicity. Eudora gave his 50-person staff such features as preset distribution lists and color-coded messages that help users quickly identify what's most important. Attachments also were easier. "We've got an office full of fairly computer-illiterate people," says Donna Hegarty, the firm's office manager. If that's not you, consider some of these high-octane features now on the market:
Attachments. They're more than just words. If you're interested in Web content, such as images or movie files, you'll want e-mail software programs that are tightly linked to Web browsers, such as Microsoft's Outlook Express 5.0 and Netscape's Messenger 4.5. These two programs are bundled with Internet Explorer and Communicator, respectively, and can be downloaded for free from each company's Web site. They send and receive e-mail in roughly the same fashion as Eudora Pro, but their HTML-based structure allows multimedia content to automatically appear in the message body. Even the simpler applications available in Eudora Pro 4.2's are pretty impressive. PureVoice, for instance, allows users to send voice files--made by simply activating the program's record button--within an e-mail message.
Remote access. If your life is the road, consider using the free Web-based services such as Yahoo! Mail or Excite Mail as a backup retrieval system. Let's say your laptop crashes, cutting you off from your regular e-mail program. The solution: Borrow any computer with Web access and configure one of these free accounts to contact your home account just by filling in a few blanks--mail server, user name, and password (on Yahoo! Mail, click "Options" and then "Check Other (POP) Mail"). The Web service then contacts your company's server and downloads the messages. The catch, although a mild one, is that your server must use a protocol called POP3, which is fairly common. The downside: These programs have fewer features than PC-based ones, they don't look terribly professional, and security is a concern for sensitive documents.
Integrating features. For power and flexibility, Lotus Notes and other corporate messaging programs are often best, but they're usually not practical for small companies that can't maintain their own servers. Small businesses can save money by using an Internet service provider (ISP) to host their e-mail service, and then get plenty of advanced features from Microsoft Outlook 2000 ($109). Besides providing a powerful and flexible e-mail program, Outlook 2000 offers a contact manager, calendar, notepad/memo function, and a good search function that tracks down related information with a simple keyword search.
Outlook 2000--and its stripped-down, free cousin, Outlook Express--also feature a complex mail-filtering system. The filters look for certain criteria in incoming mail--usually a keyword in a specific part of the message--and then automatically move, delete, or otherwise act upon that message. For example, a worker in customer service could have messages directed to folders such as "Orders," "Questions," or "Returns." You could also set the filter to identify and delete any incoming spam by looking at the source or whether the text contains contains references to "XXX Sex" in the subject field.
Compatibility. Switching e-mail programs isn't hard, but it does require a few steps to preserve your system settings and translate your old, stored messages to the new format. Nearly all e-mail installation software features a guided, step-by-step configuration process.
Whatever changes you make, it's important they're compatible with how you run your business. Joan Cear, president of the Wachsman-Cear Group, a 10-employee, public-relations firm based in New York, chose Outlook not because of its myriad features, but because it seamlessly works with her firm's Microsoft proxy server, a kind of buffer between the internal computers and the outside Internet resources being accessed.
This proxy server allows Cear to maintain a single external e-mail account with her ISP, rather than separate accounts for each employee that rack up additional usage charges. Perhaps most importantly, it gives Cear, the owner of the business, more control over the technology.
"I can say `We've added a new employee today; let's add a new account to the proxy server,"' Cear says. Then she does, instead of waiting for a person in some remote location to get around to it. For a hands-on entrepreneur who craves instant results, that's the kind of mail set-up that can really deliver.
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