Info search gets easier
By CHRISTOPHER KUFFEL
FEW things in this world are simpler than opening a book.
This is information at its most transcendentally low-tech. Ironically, it may take on-line data and communications systems a while to catch up.
Hong Kong Telecom CSL's Spectrum is a perfect example of the evolution of communications technology.
The service and its access software offers a powerful communications package along with a menu of databases, all controlled by an attractive, deceptively simple interface.
It is a total communications solution, well-suited for the mobile office.
The Spectrum service, running under Telecom CSL's SpecCom software, is one of the best options available for the portable office. By loading the SpecCom graphic user interface (GUI) on both office and portable systems, users can work from their office system or almost anywhere else.
A notebook computer can be used to download faxes from a mailbox, send and receive E-mail and telexes and provide access to information on several databases.
Connecting to Spectrum is as easy as plugging the notebook's modem into a phone line.
The program remembers the phone number and password.
Spectrum even simplifies billing.
By using the same user name and password on both systems, all billing is consolidated on to a single statement, while providing non-stop communication for the user on the move.
Modem speed is left to the user, although slow modems may offer disappointing performance when downloading large files or long E-mail messages.
Telecom CSL has come close to a plug-and-play solution, but using Spectrum still requires some intuition about computers and modems to get the system running.
Some modems may not be compatible with small problems cropping up during use.
But this should only be a problem for the technologically challenged.
Despite this small glitch, which is more the fault of the current state of hardware, the SpecCom software goes a long way towards creating an integrated communications and information source.
This telecommunications software is brilliant. It eases the traumatic log-in procedure; slicing away dozens of keystrokes and several decisions.
SpecCom is visible as three icons in a Windows file.
The first opens the program, the second controls the configuration, and the third is an address book of phone numbers.
Select the SpecCom icon and the program dials the number, logs in and presents a host of options.
Faxing, E-mail, file transfer and database access can all be selected with a double click of the mouse button.
The transfer options tie into Telecom CSL's information handling system, allowing fluid handling of electronic messages.
Because the program works from Windows, those familiar with Windows applications should have no problems working in SpecCom.
All of the familiar icons and pull-down menus are on screen. Double clicking the mouse buttons provides lightning-fast navigation.
Notebook users can prepare E-mail files and faxes off-line, then log on briefly to send and receive documents.
Database searches must be conducted while on-line, although the capture feature allows data to be collected and read at a later time.
Since all data is recorded in standard text formats, it can be imported into almost any word processor program.
This can be an aid in writing reports and presentations.
The biggest problem with the system is the cost.
While Telecom CSL points out that subscribers can save money on data communications, using the databases may be easy in practice, while paying for the service is anything but.
Exploring the databases can be a lesson in spending money.
While usage charges keep the cost of using the system down, as users are charged only for the time they use, connection charges for many databases top HK$10.
New users can ring up large bills just examining features.
Like other pay-as-you-go database services, users should make a decision about the price they are willing to pay for the data they hope to get from any database.
Consider less expensive options first, reserving more expensive options for information which must be collected quickly or is only available on expensive databases. The high cost of on-line data services are the result of the relatively small number of subscribers.
Most small companies and home offices could benefit from access to the system but many never will, because they cannot yet justify the high cost of using the system.
Despite this, a wide range of databases provide information on business topics.
Currently, Spectrum supports nine free databases, ranging from Kai Tak and international flight information to a census and statistics database.
The pay-as-you-go services are primarily focused on China business, although worldwide business databases are also available on the system. Overall, the database package is aimed at the business user.