tecquipA telecommuter used to be defined as someone who was associated with an office but not “part” of it. But the growth of computer and communications power has meant that telecommuters can be nearly the same as office dwellers.

Although the technology is still in the early stages of evolution, telecommuting now offers users a range of choices in making their connections with colleagues, customers, and other business contacts.

The basic choice faced by telecommuters is how thoroughly they wish to be connected to the office. Are simple data communications enough? Does the telecommuter need to see people or products at another site? Does he or she have to collaborate on a project with others? Does the collaboration have to be conducted in real-time, or can communications be delayed?

Telecommuters must also decide where they want to connect from. Given sufficient battery life and a good communications link, a telecommuter armed with a notebook PC and a wireless communications device can spend time visiting with clients and sales prospects while remaining connected to the office.

For some telecommuters, remote E-mail software is all that is needed, giving them the ability to exchange messages and documents with their office colleagues. The same is true for users with remote links to conferencing packages, such as Lotus Notes.

The conferences are not done in real time but the information is still distributed to all who must see it.

However, this thin store-and-forward connection to the office doesn’t give telecommuters access to network resources such as printers, CD ROM libraries, or shared files. It also doesn’t allow telecommuters to work with their colleagues simultaneously when real-time collaboration is needed.

For tighter connections and full access to network resources, telecommuters have the option of remotely controlling an office computer connected to the corporate network.

Traditionally, remote control was the only option for remote users. This approach saved on performance overhead, because all of the processing was done on the office machine. But it also required a lot of dedicated hardware.

A popular approach for full network access is a remote-node system, in which remote nodes act as full network devices by dialing in to a router and sharing its network adapter among several users dialing into the network. Users get full access to all network resources.

Clearing throughput logjams

Application software is only now catching up to the telecommuting trend. Most applications expect a fast communications transport, such as those found on LANs. Network applications expect an acknowledgment for each packet they transmit to a server. Though the response time of LANs is fairly quick, most telecommuters are connecting via modems and the responsiveness of applications lags noticeably.

Network operating system developers are working to address this hurdle by adapting their software to require fewer acknowledgments.

Novell Inc.’s packet-burst mode, for example, can be used to send many packets simultaneously without waiting for an acknowledgment. Microsoft Corp.’s Remote Access Services for Windows NT cuts back on the number of acknowledgments from previous versions and uses compression to hasten data transfers.

Other products, such as Oracle Corp.’s Oracle in Motion, modify the traditional client/server architecture and place an agent on the server, which acts as a proxy for the client, performing a lot of time- and bandwidth-consuming transactions involved in sending the data to the client.

The remote-node approach is useful for network access, but if telecommuters need to collaborate with a colleague, there are other alternatives.

Share and share alike

An interesting variation on traditional remote control is shared applications, which allow a user to dial up another user with the same software and share control of a single application.

For example, a salesperson working with a remote supplier on a contract bid could dial up the supplier’s machine and share a spreadsheet. Both the salesperson and the supplier could trade control of the keyboard and together craft mutually agreeable financial terms.

Application-sharing software, such as Intel Corp.’s ProShare and AT&T Corp.’s Vistium, also feature whiteboard components in which users can draw and annotate images.

Although most of these applications are currently point-to-point systems, standards work is under way to develop a multipoint system in which several users dialing in to a bridge unit can carry on a collaboration. The multipoint conferencing standard, known as T.120, is being developed by the ITU-TSS standards body.

The remote node, shared application, and other tools make it easier for the telecommuter to reach in to the office, but they don’t allow the office to reach out to the telecommuter. With the growing use of ISDN service, telephone systems can use the messaging and control functions of ISDN to route calls and data traffic to telecommuters with ISDN service.

Now it is easy not only to notify someone outside the office but to make them part of the office by linking their telephone system to the office phone system. Most of the PBX vendors offer remote agent functions to route calls to users outside the PBX.

In addition, PC-based tools such as Teloquent Communications Corp.’s PhoneServer permit calls and associated data to be routed to workers either on a corporate network or via ISDN lines to a remote location.

One use for these flexible call-center systems is in telemarketing or customer- service applications, in which customers’ incoming calls are paired with their account information and sent via ISDN to customer-service agents working at home.

See who’s on the line

Voice and data access to the office does not make up for physical presence, though. During a phone conversation, subtle non-verbal information, such as a furrowed brow or a smile, is not communicated.

Videoconferencing fills in some of the gap. Although some of these systems require ISDN, the advent of fast 28.8K-bps modems also permit many users to employ a rudimentary form of desktop videoconferencing..

Hayes Microcomputer Products Inc., RSI Systems Inc., and Creative Labs Inc. are among the companies that are working on or have delivered videoconferencing products that use standard analog telephone lines.