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Design a Virtual Office with Open Source? 263

Posted by Cliff
from the how-would-you-do-it dept.
apropos asks: "An interesting question came up recently when discussing (yet again) starting an open-source based consulting company: 'How would you design the ultimate virtual office with open source software?' With things like fax, VoIP, web, email, security and office suites all available as open source products, what kind of useful things could be done? One idea that came to mind was emailing answering machine recordings. What would you put into your ultimate virtual office solution?"
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Design a Virtual Office with Open Source?

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  • People. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rjstanford (69735) on Friday March 12, 2004 @08:33PM (#8548836) Homepage Journal
    That's what I'd put into the picture. People. Remember, technology is nothing but an enabler. From the receptionist who answers your phone (can be in a call center, sure, but they should be breathing) to the monkey on the keyboard getting the job done, people are what will make the difference. Everything else is an end to a means, and besides - there's nothing like dealing with people to cut through some of the crap that we get day in and day out with this stuff.
  • Hmmm.. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by meta-monkey (321000) on Friday March 12, 2004 @08:33PM (#8548838) Journal
    I think I'd recommend a good secretary. A good secretary who'll take messages for you and deliver them is a lot more practical and easier to implement than a system to email answering machine messenges. Then, you can actually conduct business instead of designing whizz-bang systems that are little more than novelties. Just a thought.
  • wireless services (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jrexilius (520067) on Friday March 12, 2004 @08:43PM (#8548917) Homepage
    Aside from the standard web-based groupware, time and project tracking, file sharing, faxing, customer collaboration/communication, and coding tools.. I would add wireless, low-bandwidth optimized UI's to all of the above as well as to things like Nessus, nmap, ssh, load testing, data validation services, site scraper, etc. etc.

    Its nice to be able to sit with a client at lunch and run a security scan and site survey from your PDA and fax the results back to him so they are waiting in his office when he gets back.

    I am building those tools for my fledgling company and used some of them today at a client site.
  • VOIP (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Alan Hicks (660661) on Friday March 12, 2004 @08:46PM (#8548930) Homepage
    I haven't done it yet (largely because of the cost involved and my current lack of funds), but an open source VOIP system could kick ass and save you money. Phone systems are historically very expensive. It should be possible to run VOIP on your NAT router with an asterisk compatable phone card that supports say, 4 extensions (assuming a small office here). Phones are probably your biggest expense, but a complete phone system is often an order of magnitude higher than what can currently be implemented with VOIP in a small office, at least that's my take on it.
  • by lockholm (703003) on Friday March 12, 2004 @08:55PM (#8548977)
    The one area in which MS Ofiice is way ahead of any open source software is the functionality of Excel. Making graphs, sorting and binning, analyzing data - these are basic but exceedingly useful functions Excel does much better than any open source spreadsheet software I've ever used. Those who rely heavily on data analysis will use higher-powered programs than Excel, but for intermediate users, having that functionality quickly at hand is very useful. This is one area where, though it's not a fancy "new innovation," that could really improve the usefulness of open source spreadsheet programs.
  • Re:Hmmm.. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kfg (145172) on Friday March 12, 2004 @08:59PM (#8549001)
    If your seceratay/personal assistant/receptionist isn't worth $40k a year you've got the wrong person in the job.

    This isn't a place for a decorative "dumb blonde." That's Fortune 500 CEO stuff.

    In a small, virtual, high tech company doing most of its work/business over internet/phone the assistants should be among the sharpest people you've got working for you, and payed for it.

    They'll pay back their high salaries in triplicate. Thus they're cheap. The reduction of the assistant to a "seceratary" is one of the greatest tragedies of the corporate world.

    KFG
  • by Openstandards.net (614258) <.ten.sdradnatsnepo. .ta. .todhsals.> on Friday March 12, 2004 @09:03PM (#8549022) Homepage
    I don't think technology is the challenge. It's the people resources that are difficult to manage.

    How do you pay people you not only can't see daily, but possibly may have never even met in person? How can you check up on the current state of your operation?

  • Re:Already done (Score:3, Insightful)

    by aeoo (568706) on Friday March 12, 2004 @09:08PM (#8549048) Journal
    Why is parent modded up? The original post was talking about a virtual open source based office.

    Silly me, I actually spend about a minute looking for the source code on the author's site! The least that the parent could have done is to mention explicitely that it's not open source, so as to avoid deceiving people.
  • Features (Score:3, Insightful)

    by El (94934) on Friday March 12, 2004 @09:14PM (#8549071)
    Obvious features are intercepting all outgoing fax and data calls to see if they can be routed over the internet to save on toll charges. Less obvious is setting up a special email account which automatically prints attachments of any email received -- just don't give out this address to spammers!

    Personally, I think all received faxes should be saved to hard disk and previewed before being printed to prevent wasting paper. But I'm not sure how easy this is to implement currently with open source.
  • by kfg (145172) on Friday March 12, 2004 @09:17PM (#8549087)
    You'll find the switch in your breaker box. Or on your power strip/UPS if you arrange things carefully.

    No one forces you to take your cell phone with you at all times, or to actually have it turned on if you do have it with you. If you've been trained to salivate every time a bell rings, well, untrain yourself, we have that advantage over dogs.

    Yes, I know your post was a joke, but it's one of those jokes that's funny because of its ultimate truth.

    The power of control was with you all along. Just click your heels together three times.

    KFG
  • Re:Usability (Score:3, Insightful)

    by patternjuggler (738978) on Friday March 12, 2004 @09:21PM (#8549105) Homepage
    KDE and GNOME? Yeah. But there are two of them. Why? End users do not care about choice. They want something that works, and where every application looks the same and works the same. They also do not care about recompiling their kernel every time they buy some hardware, or recompiling software to alter some setting only available compile-time.

    So pick KDE or GNOME, and only use apps that are particular to one or agnostic to either. Don't tell the users that the other exists, and like you said, they won't care. I think the point here is make this virtual office work from the beginning, and don't let joe office worker install a new card or dick around with a possibly unsupported webcam after his computer has been configured.

    I dare not count how many Open Source projects actually start out creating a logo, a hompeage, and an implementation of themes, a particularly pointless feature. Somehow that says everything. For most of them, anyways.

    Right, 90% of everything is crap. Nothing insightful there. If you know how to use google intelligently, read trade publications or slashdot, and so forth, then you know what's good and what works. Browsing sourceforge or freshmeat randomly is not how you find software to create a work environment quickly and easily.
  • Re:Usability (Score:2, Insightful)

    by gujo-odori (473191) on Friday March 12, 2004 @09:42PM (#8549201)
    You're probably just trolling, but on the off chance that your're not:

    KDE and GNOME? Yeah. But there are two of them. Why? End users do not care about choice.

    If they do not care about choice (and I don't think that's true of all of them, or even most, or things like skins wouldn't exist in the first place), that's not a problem: in a business environment, the choice of UI is made by the IT department, not the end users. They will choose either Gnome or KDE, as they see fit. The end user, if unfamiliar with FOSS, may be unaware that there even *was* a choice. Nor will the end users ever have to recompile a kernel, or even install one. Do you know long it's been since I've had to build a custom kernel? Never. That is, I've never *had* to build one. Sometimes I do, but it's not necessary, I just do it for fun. Mostly, I use whatever is current in Debian Sid.

    Can you tell me anything in, say, Star Office/OpenOffice.org that takes "a Ph.D in Rocket Science (or two hours of trial-and-failure)" to do? I rarely use MS Office (my usual work environment is a text editor) or OpenOffice.org, but when I use either, I find the behavior of both similar, and the ease (or lack thereof) to do things similar as well. Put another way, if your claim is true of FOSS office suites, it is just as true of the most popular proprietary ones.

    What about browsers? Hmmm. Mozilla, Firefox, and Konqueror are just as easy to use as IE, and easiser to configure, especially from a security standpoint.

    Email? Outlook and Outlook Express have nothing on Evolution and Kmail (or Sylpheed or Balsa) for usability.

    Text editors? Same story.

    I fully agree that usability is important, but if you can point to an actual usability problem in some FOSS software likely to be used in an office environment, please do. You have not made your case at all.

  • Re:VOIP (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gregmac (629064) on Friday March 12, 2004 @09:45PM (#8549210) Homepage
    The Digium cards seem a mght expensive, but there are definately cheaper then channel banks.

    More importantly, the digium cards, plus computer hardware, plus voip phones running with Asterisk all together is still far cheaper than a normal VoIP system (say, 3Com or NEC), or a voicemail-equiped digital (non-voip) phone system. Plus you get a ton more features and flexibility than you could ever possibly have in a closed system.

  • Re:Usability (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jrexilius (520067) on Friday March 12, 2004 @09:50PM (#8549228) Homepage
    Well, the question stands who is the user that you are targeting with your "usability". If you read the original post again it mentions the discussion centered around virtual office needs for a technology company (consulting, software, etc.). My company is a technology and myself and my colleagues have a definition of usability that centers on our ability to hack at it if it doesnt do what we want. Our motto of sorts, however, is something along the lines of "we know technology so you dont have to" and our customers often have their own definitions of usability.

    Unlike proprietary software, they dont have to memorize how the vendor wants them to use the application, they tell me and I make it work for them how they want it. That usability model is also different.

    Not to say that many open source packages don't suck as end-user tools, but everyone has different ideas of usability and its strength is that I can make it fit those ideas.
  • Re:Usability (Score:2, Insightful)

    by craXORjack (726120) on Friday March 12, 2004 @10:03PM (#8549297)
    What about browsers? Hmmm. Mozilla, Firefox, and Konqueror are just as easy to use as IE, and easiser to configure, especially from a security standpoint.

    I only use Mozilla but I have to support IE too. It is much easier to configure proxies in IE because I can type the address once and check a box that says use this address for all proxies. But in Mozilla/NS I have to type it in repeatedly. Not a big deal until you do it a hundred times over the course of a year.

    I also have a beef with Mozilla over anonymous FTP access. When IE hits an ftp site like ftp://ftp.somedamncompanyname.com and anonymous with a default password fails, it pops up a dialog box to get the needed info from the user. But Mozilla does not. This issue has been submitted as a bug/enhancement literally at least a dozen times but the developers have classified it as an IE work-alike feature and given it very low priority so it sits unfixed years after it was submitted (bug 124561). They don't understand that end user usability should be given high priority not low. And it is a very easy fix too! Talk about frustrating!

    But I do love Mozilla. I just wish it's development was a little more customer driven.

  • Re:Hmmm.. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 12, 2004 @10:09PM (#8549326)
    If you've got 3 engineers and no secretary/office manager you're already beyond hope.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 12, 2004 @10:17PM (#8549362)
    The purpose of the assistant is to interface with the outside world so that you can do the creative engineering that customers want to pay for.

    The phone's gonna ring. Are you going to answer it every time, interrupt your train of thought, and devote your attention to juggling it? Or are you going to dump all your incoming calls into voicemail and deal with them one day per week?

    If you don't have a lot of cash, try paying your assistant the same thing that you're paying yourself: a chunk of equity along with a low salary.

    I'm not a business process engineer but you have to consider these issues if you plan to be in business.
  • Re:Hmmm.. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kfg (145172) on Friday March 12, 2004 @10:20PM (#8549375)
    . . .but I have to service my customers first and I only have 24 hours in a day.

    Bingo! And your hours are more valuable taking care of those things that only you can take care of than they are taking your clothes to the cleaners and picking them up again, and all those thousand and one little tasks that the modern "seceratary" has been taught to refuse to do.

    I've known salesman who payed assistants out of their own pocket when the company refused to provide one, because their time selling was worth more than the time doing the things the assistant did for them. And I'm not talking about million dollar a year salesman. I'm talking about people in their first year or two in the trade making $20k themselves if they were lucky.

    Yes, startup is tough. You thought you were through living on Ramen noodles and sleeping on a hand-me-down sofa bed when you got out of school, didn't you? Now you've got all that again, plus the fact that you'll spend many a night tossing on that sofa bed wondering how in the hell you're going to make Friday's payroll.

    You rich, bloody capitalist pig you.

    Even so, you'll find that you're better off in the long run (like, within a year) hiring one technologist and one assistant than hiring two technologists, because that assistant will be leveraged into more, and better, work by both yourself and your technologist. The affect it can have on morale alone is astounding.

    Use the software for what software can legitimately do. Like connect you with your technologists, and them with your customers. But use people for what only people can do, like making sure you never run out of toner, and thus lose hours of valuable work time while you chase after more instead of chasing after customers or getting the print job out by deadline.

    Go to your local college and find a CE sophmore who'll take a part time internship for $7.50/hr, 10 hrs/wk.

    Don't lie to them. Tell them they're going to be the office schlub for a startup with dubious finances and future. If they take the job they'll bust their ass for you with a smile on their face.

    Just be sure to reward them when you've reached the point where you can. They'll be yours for life if you do that.

    They'll piss all over you if you don't, and you'll deserve it.

    And yes, I'll have a look at your software.

    KFG
  • by Gunfighter (1944) on Friday March 12, 2004 @10:38PM (#8549436) Homepage
    It's quite simple... you don't manage, you lead. Micromanaging your people is a crappy way to do business. You set the goal and let the people head towards it under your guidance. Let the results speak for themselves.

    Tell your people what to do or tell them how to do it, but not both. If you have to do both, you're doing something wrong and probably shouldn't be in a leadership position anyways. This will teach your underlings some initiative and help them develop sound judgement. If someone doesn't know how to do what you tell them to do, let them come and ask. If they're afraid to come and ask, that's a whole different communication problem you're having.

    I work from home 4 out of 5 days a week now because I get more done than I would at the office. We also have a person working from afar that nobody in the company has ever met in person, yet he is one of our 'secret weapon' employees and turns out some amazing designs.

    The bossman checks on my progress all the time via email, phone, jabber, whatever. He checks on the overall state of his operations like this:

    if ((grossReceipts > expenses + wages + taxes) && (projectFinishDate < projected)):
    kickAss()
    giveBonuses(everyone)
    else:
    kickEmployeesInTheAss()

    Just in cased you missed it before: Micromanagers SUCK!!
  • Better Solution (Score:3, Insightful)

    by nick_davison (217681) on Friday March 12, 2004 @11:04PM (#8549559)
    Rather than buy it with virtual money, why not outsource it to slashdot, the ultimate free consultancy service:

    1) Set up consultancy firm
    2) Ask slashdot
    3) Profit
  • Re:Usability (Score:2, Insightful)

    by chadruva (613658) on Friday March 12, 2004 @11:44PM (#8549710) Homepage
    I think you are mistaking OSS Developers for some sort of enterprise company (some are, but not all of us).

    Most of us start a project that is useful for us only, later we found that it can be useful for other people, then we make our software Open Source, for everybody to use, share and modify.

    We are not about users, we are about sharing. You can modify it if you don't like it, it works for me. OSS people are very kind and care about their users, but their users don't help, they always keep yelling out loud of how the software isn't what they want, that why the interface is ugly, blah, blah, blah.

    Stop this crap at once, you don't pay me for coding, i already giving it for free, if you don't like it you can look for other projects or buy some software that does what you want!. Don't bother me with nonsenses, the code is there, help!
  • by rsax (603351) on Saturday March 13, 2004 @05:25AM (#8550717)
    2. Groupware - I've been meaning to look at the OSS groupware packages available, because with more shared projects, we need a centralised way of managing projects, tasks, calendars and contacts. These should be able to be accessed from Outlook ideally (Outlook 2003 is pretty good I have to admit). It would be nice to have faxes received via a modem in a linux box arrive in the groupware where appropriate staff can access them from wherever they are at the time. The groupware would naturally be a good home for the web interface to the samba file shares.

    OpenGroupware [opengroupware.org] already does all that. Download [kalamazoolinux.org] a PDF presentation to read up some more on it. It will even integerate [opengroupware.org] with dirty Outlook if you purchase a commerical plugin [skyrix.com] at the same time it will provide you with a decent web interface for free.

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