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Linux Business GNU is Not Unix Software

Design a Virtual Office with Open Source? 263

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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  • Netoffice (Score:3, Interesting)

    by robbedbit ( 598810 ) on Friday March 12, 2004 @08:33PM (#8548833)
    Great simple CRM.
  • by grub ( 11606 ) <> on Friday March 12, 2004 @08:33PM (#8548835) Homepage Journal

    What would be useful?

    emailing answering machine recordings.. I don't think so. Emailing the entire answering machine recording could backfire. That could easily be used as a DoS against someone's email box ("Let's all leave a message for that ass Professor Doofus tonight!")

    Not that I get a lot of faxes these days (read: "the 21st century") but it would be nice to have software that would OCR a fax then email the text to me (this one is simple enough that it probably already exists) == Less paper.

    If a company were large enough to have a mail room, then scanning in snail mail and emailing images would be neat. One could always fetch the hard copy if needed. I'm far more efficient with electronic files than I am with paper. (My desk is a pigsty)

  • by rjstanford ( 69735 ) on Friday March 12, 2004 @08:35PM (#8548852) Homepage Journal
    Scanning in snail mail and emailing images would be neat. One could always fetch the hard copy if needed

    I use PayTrust [] for my bills - they do exactly this. What they can get electronically, they do, but any other bills go to their address and get scanned in. I get an email with highlighted information (date due, minimum payment, total payment, etc) and can set up automatic payment rules (for example, "Pay celphone bill unless its over $120 - if it is, then email me first"). And it works on anything, even little scraps of paper.

    Pretty cool stuff, and very friendly.
  • Already done (Score:-1, Interesting)

    by grennis ( 344262 ) on Friday March 12, 2004 @08:36PM (#8548871)
    I'm the author of The PhoneBOT [], answering machine software that can email you your messages - and let you check them over the web. And let you remotely monitor your calls. And lots of other cool stuff too.

    When I tell people it's for using your PC as an answering machine, they its a terribly nerdy idea. But when I explain all the advantages to it (keep your messages forever!) they usually end up getting very interested.

  • Re:Hmmm.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Dejohn ( 164452 ) on Friday March 12, 2004 @08:39PM (#8548891) Homepage
    We've been using a voicemail-in-the-inbox solution from Avaya (Unified Messenger) for about 5 years at a 100 user company. It's extremely stable and reliable. Interestingly... it's fully integrated with Exchange. It uses the Information Store as it's voicemail storage. When you dial into the voicemail system from a regular phone, it says "you have x new voicemails, x new emails, and x new faxes". It then gives you options to access all of those (read your email with a text->speech, or forward your emails (with attachements) or faxes to another fax machine.

    It's really cool technology and continues to amaze everyone we show it to, so I'm surprised that it's not yet fully commonplace.

    For an open source solution? Hmmm... good luck? :)
  • Linmodems (Score:5, Interesting)

    by SharpFang ( 651121 ) on Friday March 12, 2004 @08:42PM (#8548907) Homepage Journal
    Get a winmodem and software from []

    Citing the site:

    # Think telephone emulation (put the audio card into full duplex, and talk to the linmodem with it).
    # Think telephone with a backspace key (use the linmodem to dial for you).
    # Think smart telephone: "That line is busy. Do you want me to retry in five minutes?"
    # Think "voice dialling".
    # Think "soft pbx". Equip enough machines in an office for all the outside lines. Then do IP telephone inter-office, and go to a linmodem when you need an outside line.
    # Think answering machine.
    # Think pager interface. Your answering machine takes the call, phones your pager company and pages you).
    # Think "contact database with integral dialler, and answering machine recognition".
    # Think "call recording with no off-hook click".
    # Think message detail recorder (basically a record of all time spent on the phone. Great for billing.

    I guess mailing voice recording wouldn't be hard.
  • Re:Already done (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 12, 2004 @08:48PM (#8548939)
    This is fine if you run Windows..

    The link in the original post had instructions for setting it up in Linux, with free software.

    I have been using my Linux server as an answering machine for about three years now. When I get a voice message, it is archived, noted in a log file, converted to MP3, posted on a web UI, and e-mailed to my yahoo mail account. So, I can access the message locally, or via Yahoo Mail if I'm out.
  • by daveo0331 ( 469843 ) * on Friday March 12, 2004 @08:56PM (#8548989) Homepage Journal
    emailing answering machine recordings.. I don't think so. Emailing the entire answering machine recording could backfire. That could easily be used as a DoS against someone's email box ("Let's all leave a message for that ass Professor Doofus tonight!")

    Or better yet, use voice-recognition software to translate the message to text, and send it to my email. I can read (or skim) faster than I can listen. Of course, I'd also want the recording (which wouldn't take up much space, as someone else already pointed out) in case someone left a phone number and the software didn't translate it correctly.
  • Usability (Score:5, Interesting)

    by viktor ( 11866 ) on Friday March 12, 2004 @09:02PM (#8549016) Homepage
    What would you put into your ultimate virtual office solution?

    One word: Usability.

    Open Source is wonderful for what it is, its principles are beautiful, its spirit is clean, and it is absolutely no good to end users as it stands today.

    Applications do not look the same, nor do they work the same. 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.

    Whatever functionality (which is normally Open Source developers' focus) the office solution gives, it is absolutely worthless if it takes a Ph.D. in Rocket Science (or two hours of trial-and-failure) to understand how to reach the wanted end results.

    So usability would be my primer choice for end result.

    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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 12, 2004 @09:04PM (#8549023)
    Uhh asterisk might be open source, but the equipement that is needed to make use of the software can range from 300 to multiple thousands of dollars.

    That's not including the ISDN PRI that you going to have split into 24 different trunks, either...
  • by snookerdoodle ( 123851 ) on Friday March 12, 2004 @09:37PM (#8549183)
    One objection that kept my last place decidedly windoze was the accounting software. There are a limited number of accounting s/w packages that an anal CPA will be happy with, even in Bill Gates' Realm. In our case, the Controller said, essentially, "Anything you want, as long as it runs Solomon Accounting Software". (FWIW, Solomon was purchased by Great Plains, who was later acquired by Our Friends In Redmond.) In this case, a significant number of desktops had to have windoze along with at least one server (MS SQL Server).

    But that's just an example. It could have been something else. It could be Illustrator. Or Photoshop (yes, I Love The GIMP, but I'd switch if Photoshop was free). The productivity of users in the long run is far more significant than even, say, a $15,000 accounting package.

    My wife is currently taking the Becker/Conviser course in preparation for her CPA exam. Yup, we have to have Windoze for the practice software. Fortunately, OpenOffice runs very nicely on her XP box. ;-)

    I think that, as long as you're prepared to build and *support* heterogeneous systems with perhaps a blend of "Whatever The End User Needs", you are fine. You can suggest ways to save money, but keep your eye on productivity - it's arguable to me that OpenOffice is in some ways *better* than MS Office, for example. If you walk in *telling* users they should be happy with, say, Abiword, you're already on the wrong foot, IMHO.

  • Re:Hmmm.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jrexilius ( 520067 ) on Friday March 12, 2004 @09:39PM (#8549191) Homepage
    I agree, however, I am worried about paying my own salary and the next person I hire is going to have to be a worker, and the next 3 people after that. Once I can pay 4 engineers' salary then I might get a secretary but I have to service my customers first and I only have 24 hours in a day.

    Your point is valid for companies that have > 3 people and are (more) secure financially but I will be without physical office for a while and need to hire good technologists first.

    So the original question, how can I use my existing or modified infrastructure and intelligent software to help cover that gap until then?

    I am working on building the tools I need and I love open source for this. People have touched on great packages such as mgetty and I would add wiki, egroupware (fork of phpgroupware), squirrel mail, horde, etc. etc.

    I am building a suite of tools that I am giving back to the community (as they are based on open source tools to begin with) that may be a nice package for virtual office needs. See for some of the code (still being developed).
  • by gregmac ( 629064 ) on Friday March 12, 2004 @09:55PM (#8549253) Homepage
    We use hylafax quite extensively at the office. We are not into phase 2 yet which aims at removing all incoming hard copy. Pretty much when I get time to finish the roll out we should move to this. I'm still setting up for phase 1 of my hylafax rollout, which is basically setting up a print-to-fax gateway. I don't like any of the existing solutions, so I basically started from scratch. The fax capture runs as a samba print share, when you print to it, it spools it into an 'outbox'. This spool service will also connect back to the sender's PC and make a program popup (which I haven't written yet) asking for the phone number, cover page notes, etc, much like Respond [], except in a non-ugly interface that includes cover page options. If it can't connect, or the user doesn't fill it out, it will just sit in the outbox with a 'pending' status (since it has no fax destination). Phase 2 will be the same as yours, removing incoming hardcopy, putting faxes into a similar 'inbox' spool. Think webmail, but for faxes. Eventually, I'd also like to do OCR that gets run through filters which can hopefully match things like "Attn: bob" and send an email to bob telling him he has a new fax. I doubt I'll be able to replace the actual fax with OCR due to quality, but we'll see.
  • by Dark Coder ( 66759 ) on Friday March 12, 2004 @09:59PM (#8549277)
    1. X10 controller
      1. SmartHome.Com []
      2. web-based X10 controller []
      3. Complete listing of X10 software []
      4. Linux-based HomeVision []
    2. GNU Automaton []
    3. an established IPv6 tunnel with your own IPv6 address subnet (it's a whole new world out there)
    4. SMS server for your cell-phone (good with X10)
      1. X10 event to your SMS phone [] (via paging)
      2. Control X10 from your WAP cellphone []
    5. Mobile IP server for your roving laptop
    and as a tribute toward the fabled CMU Trojan Room Coffee webcam lore...

    Coffee Maker [] (this one needs an Java-Dispenser SNMP agent [] badly)

    We're almost there...

  • by rediguana ( 104664 ) on Friday March 12, 2004 @10:46PM (#8549466)
    This topic has been on my mind for the past year whilst I've been setting up a small (3 location, 5 person) management consulting practice. I'm going to dump as much as I can here.

    1a. File-sharing across multiple locations. Haven't done this because bandwidth isn't quite cheap enough yet, but perhaps in the near future, I'll be setting up rsync'd shares between the 3 locations so we can work from the same file base. Hasn't been a problem when working on separate projects but with more joint projects, it is starting to get messy with people keeping their own project directories.

    1b. Search interface to files. Heirarchical file structures suck for trying to find things. Good for filing once, but I reckon I could retreive files quicker with a google-like interface. So, I want a prebuilt web front end that can automatically provide a search interface to samba shares. I should be able to treat each share as a collection, so I can chose to search just one collection or many. This would be very useful.

    Personally, I want to work towards the following solution.
    * samba shares of heirarchical folders that can be mapped and synced to laptops
    * a web search interface to the samba shares that understands doc/xls/pdf etc a la htdig
    * rsync to maintain similar shares across multiple sites

    Alternatively, it would be interesting to investigate peer-to-peer as an alternative - as long as files could still be synced to go on the road. Cool P2P features would be to define how many copies should be stored of each file on the network (to force backup) and to have the primary files migrate to where they are used the most to cut down bandwidth transfers.

    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.

    3. Office software - appears to lack the ability to track changes - essential for multiple people working on a project. Compare document is not enough. You need to be able to identify changes, and add comment bubbles for the development and review process. Additionally OOo needs to have a basic project management tool, drawing tool, and even a note taking tool a la MS Project, Visio and OneNote. That would cover most business needs.

    4. Security phpki looks interesting and useful for managing email certs. Naturally most network communication should be encrypted between locations with SSH tunnels or similar.

    5. Intelligence. Haven't seen anything like this but it would be very very useful for any business. There needs to be a web interface to an intelligence gathering and searching tool. So I hear that "so-and-so is planning to do this" I can record it in a database. Later, someone could search for so-and-so and be provided with the gossip from the different sources within the organisation. Could be a very useful tool. Perhaps something like an OSS version of the NSA's Intelink software - a means of providing, sharing and searching business intelligence.

    6. Timesheet. A good OSS web based timesheeting system would be very useful.

    7. NNTP. Thats right, I want to use good ole newsgroups. I tried web forums, but they didn't go down well because you had to be online. With NNTP you can use an offline reader, and reply offline. I reckon I can get my technophobe partners to use that because its so similar to email. Email is a bane for internal communication because of the cc's and everyone archiving mail. It would be easier to move as much as possible to a newsserver and use email only for direct communication between two people. Then a web interface from the intranet would be nice as well!

    I'm not asking for too much am I? ;)
  • by dsplat ( 73054 ) on Friday March 12, 2004 @10:47PM (#8549470)
    emailing answering machine recordings.. I don't think so. Emailing the entire answering machine recording could backfire. That could easily be used as a DoS against someone's email box ("Let's all leave a message for that ass Professor Doofus tonight!")

    You have a good point. I'd use Caller ID and send myself e-mail telling me when the message was received and who it was from.
  • by Russ Nelson ( 33911 ) <> on Friday March 12, 2004 @10:51PM (#8549492) Homepage
    When I pick up the telephone, I want my MP3 player to pause. I also want the telephone to do a google search on the incoming caller-id. And log the beginning and end of every call. And automatically bill it to the customer associated with that telephone number.
  • I've been using JFax from J2 [] for years. It will forward faxes and voicemails to your email account and it costs less than adding a phone line.
  • by craXORjack ( 726120 ) on Friday March 12, 2004 @11:08PM (#8549575)
    What would you put into your ultimate virtual office solution?

    I think the most important thing is not usability as an earlier poster claimed though that is important but maintainability. Owners of small businesses with a dozen employees can't afford to have a full time network or systems administrator. So the responsibility usually falls on someone who is an engineer or administrative assistant but who is more interested in computer stuff than their average co-worker. If you put together a package that requires them to call you back in at $120 an hour everytime something strange happens, it will put the brakes on adoption. Make your money and your reputation on doing installs and never needing to come back. Make your product and service the AK-47 of the SOHO world. BTW, if any readers don't know, the M-16 has better range and accuracy but jams when not cleaned regularly whereas the AK rifle can be dragged through swamps and get sand and mud in the chamber yet keep on firing happily, at least that is the reputation. (If any godless communists with personal experience with it want to correct me, feel free.)

    As for specific cool ideas... Take the voicemail to email one step further: maybe you could get voice recognition software to translate the message to words (or just phonemes when it is unsure of a word), send that to email, and act as a proxy allowing a reply email from, for example a two way pager, to be translated back into speech by voice synthesis software, then redial the original number found by callerID, read off the reply and ask for a certain touchtone or the word 'confirmed' to be said if the correct recipient got the reply. Like this:

    (Metallic Voice):
    Hello Grandma... This is Peter... I am running late... Will be there after I pick up the kids at the YMCA...
    (pre-recorded voice): If you are... Grandma... and you understand... Peter... 's reply, please press the '5' key or say 'confirmed' now.
  • Virtual Information (Score:2, Interesting)

    by eckes ( 19624 ) on Friday March 12, 2004 @11:45PM (#8549719) Homepage Journal
    I wonder what the point of this article is?

    And why is it a virtual office, of you use physical computers? If it is the work place at home, call it Soho, or call it the workplace of a telecommuter, but I dont see what the virtual here is, besides a disturbing buzz-word.

    And by the way, did I miss the content of this article? It is just listening some well known web sites. Where is the news?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 13, 2004 @12:04AM (#8549798)
    What if you came across a freeware product that perfectly met your needs (Pegasus does for me) but it's not "open source" - does that condemn it to never being considered?

    Are you really looking for open source, or free (as in beer)? If it's free (as in beer) but not open-source, is it considered as evil as someone who asks money for the product?

  • Phone automation (Score:5, Interesting)

    by double_h ( 21284 ) on Saturday March 13, 2004 @12:16AM (#8549845) Homepage
    Around 1997 or so I worked in an office where they were considering an integrated voicemail system that was pretty cool. It had its own modular server/bridge hardware (this was an office of about 300 people) and interfaced in with the email system (which was Netware + Groupwise in this office). When you received a phone message it would automatically show up in your inbox with a phone icon next to it, and you could select to either play it through the PC speakers, or via phone headset, in which case it would instantly ring your line with the message. Pretty snazzy, and worked with the existing phone network.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 13, 2004 @12:38AM (#8549904)
    Instead of concentrating on the open source office, how about concentrating on creating a *product* or *service* based on open source?

    Create a product, get a customer, and *then* think about how geeky your office can be.

  • by rediguana ( 104664 ) on Saturday March 13, 2004 @01:57AM (#8550193)
    Thanks Robin, I shall be revisiting OOo to experiement! I also see that OOo Draw has some of the tools I've been using in Visio too. Shows what happens when work is too busy to experiment more with the software.

    Cheers Gav
  • by tmoertel ( 38456 ) on Saturday March 13, 2004 @02:22AM (#8550247) Homepage Journal
    Nice timing! :)

    If you're interested, the slides and notes from the talk are here: Fun with Asterisk and Perl [].

    The talk was for the Pittsburgh Perl Mongers and shows a four examples:

    • text-to-speech
    • dial the weather
    • web form that sets up a call
    • web form that sets up a conference
    Asterisk is fun stuff and worth a look.
  • eStudies

    hehe... I think I've got the format memorized for the wiki address... will get you to it if I goofed up.
  • by amix ( 226257 ) on Saturday March 13, 2004 @06:02AM (#8550818) Journal
    What Linux needs in general is a powerful scripting-demon. Or let's call it an API demon. Something like ARexx on Amiga (or REXX on OS/2), that sits in the background and connects a scripting environment with message-interfaces of applications. However, my ideal solution would mean, that applications register all their functionality to this demon. Now any language could make use of this API. Especially scripting-anguages, since this is why it would be there.

    Then I would like to see all applications coming with freely configurabel toolbars, menus and mous-actions. Any of these would make use of the same functions available at the scripting-demon.

    Now, add an Office on top of that and you get really really powerful.

    Also I would like to see all the desktop being task based, as I would like to see the Office being task based, rather than applicaiton-based.
    The system would sense the context in which you are working and adopt. Maybe by learning your habits.

    The Office would be fully modular. Wide support for answering-machines, voice-modems, fax. (Hylafax could be addressed due to modularity and scripting).
    Then I would love to see code being reused:

    - completly stylesheet based. No own stylesheet, just extensions to CSS1, CSS2, CSS3)
    - spreadsheet in "classic" mode and "Lotus Imrpov" mode
    - full use of relational databases anywhere
    - full use of LDAP anywhere
    - no new Fax software. Use Hylafax and/or getty.
    - no monolithic applications. Instead function-modules, that can 'dock' into each other
    - status monitor lists recent emails along with contacts. Full integration of IM and email without forcing the user upon certain MUA.
    - export all to: Web (stylesheets!), PDF. PS, Latex, MS formats etc.
    - since all is modular people disliking WPCs could replace it with a special TeX editor
    - visual database designer
    - visual LDAP schema designer
    - and many more...

    I want all information accessible anywhere in such a complex application.
  • by torpor ( 458 ) <ibisum@gm a i l . com> on Saturday March 13, 2004 @06:26AM (#8550880) Homepage Journal
    linux telephony has been a great consulting market since 1995 at least! i have set up similar systems for many customers using early versions of Asterisk and similar IVR apps running on linux set up with good telephony-card support. it allows complete, policy-based, scripted automation of all of the main company life-blood (calls), and linuxIVR was my most successful bread-maker, when i was in the consulting business. being able to completely sync the reality of such things as call time tracking -directly- with the internal business apps; even -having- all call details being logged and trackable from a database, for so cheap, made linux the sweetest setup.

    its really cool to see how far its all come (yeah, XML-RPC!!) and yet its so much one of those 'hidden success of linux' stories.

    its like, the operating system that was so good at doing what it does, everyone forgets its even there, or what it is. "never mind the 'war for desktop', who is taking care of the telephones, and the billing, where is the 'policy' computer, etc?" heh heh ... some linux box in the closet, "up 826 days, 4 users, load averages: 0.09 0.22 0.45"
  • by BP9 ( 516511 ) on Saturday March 13, 2004 @10:29AM (#8551372)
    Having done development in a virtual environment for about the last 10 years IMO the most important thing is facilitating collaboration between engineers.
    The first company I did this with was almost entirely virtual and we used primarily telephone and email. This is good and worked OK where the projects were small enough they could be designed and implemented by 1 or 2 persons (basically isolated development). The largest project (multithreading a legacy kernel) was 3 people and I probably spent 3-4 hours a day on the phone in some phases of it.
    This pattern served well enough for the next 2 companies as well (one a startup and one a large corp), but in both cases a lot of travel was involved to keep everyone in their loops.
    Its not as much the software used as the mindset that everyone has to be involved in what used to be 'hallway' talk. While you have to have some additional process other than hallway talk for a project, it is very valuable and cements a group together (if all you ever experience of your co-workers is spec and design email exchange its hard to develop a feel of how they think/work, and IMO empathy with your co-workers greases the skids significantly).
    To finally get to the point: based on something I read on slashdot back in 99 or so when we did the next 'virtual' startup I pushed hard to use a broader range of tools. After 4 years of trying various mechanisms some have stuck and some have not, here's what is working really well for a smallish group of sr developers (5-10) and worked OK for a larger group (25ish) of mixed sr and jr people doing development of a 500kloc scale project involving kernel work (database and OS/networking):
    • IRC: this is our virtual office. The equivalent of walking to someone's cube and asking them a question happens here. We found that running structured meetings solely on IRC was not efficient, people who hate meetings would tend to do other work and not pay any attention at all.
      We set up UnrealIRC as the server (with a hack to disable the throttling so people can paste blocks of code or debug output w/o getting limited to 1 line per second) inside a firewall. Everyone uses an SSH tunnel to get to it. For clients everyone uses Xchat or mIRC.
      The most important trivial sounding thing about this setup is that everyone set up a trigger that watches for their name or traffic on a /query window and makes a sound. Some people set up filters to make sounds when their subsystem name is mentioned too. The key is you can say 'hey fred!' and at fred's end a noise happens. Most new employees don't see the point until a few weeks into using the system when they've missed out of good discussions regarding something they're responsible for.
    • a Wiki: I fought this as 'a toy' for a while, but finally came around and now I can't imagine how we worked w/o it. We tried using Frame+Visio+cvs for design documents, as well as Word + powerpoint (for drawings), also nroff+xfig. Nothing has come even close to the ease of doing collaborative design work on a Wiki.
      We use TWiki: it keeps everything in RCS under the covers and lets you easily attach binary files to any page (for drawings and such). There are lots of fancy plugins.
    • Plain old email: nothing fancy; used mostly as a store and forward message system to indicate when someone updates something in the Wiki that needs review or when changes are submitted to source control.
    • Phone conference: we use a commercial service called ReadyConference, no scheduling required everyone just calls into the bridge whenever we internally need a meeting. For small conferences 3-way calling from the phone company (even two 3ways put together) is much cheaper and good quality (just a pain to set up). Keep the number of meetings low and to the point (always have an agenda) and the phone is a fast way to reach consensus, its a poor place to float new proposals , IRC is much better for sending up a balloon.
    • Source control: I know this shouldn't even require menti
  • by Eslyjah ( 245320 ) on Saturday March 13, 2004 @11:03AM (#8551486)
    Google Voice Search []
  • Real World Example (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Long-EZ ( 755920 ) on Saturday March 13, 2004 @01:18PM (#8552150)
    I run a small engineering company. I made some future oriented changes a year and a half ago.

    Linux OS. I probably should have switched a year earlier, but it's definitely ready for most business users now. Wars have been fought over which distro to use, but Xandros [] can definitely help a small company be productive right now.

    OpenOffice for word processing, spreadsheets, and even HTML authoring (until Nvu [] becomes available soon). OpenOffice has a good user interface, ease of use and interoperability. Like most open source products, it just keeps getting better.

    Mozilla for email and web browsing. I'll switch to Firefox soon. From what I've read, Outlook refugees (poor bastards) would like Ximian Evolution. []

    Fax via email. I chose MaxEmail [], but there are others. Way cheaper, better and less hassle than a fax machine. I strongly prefer email. MaxEmail allows technoweanies to send a fax and we can still handle it as email (choice of PDF or TIFF). They also provide voice mail systems, but we don't use them.

    Cell Phones. This sounds a bit cheesy at first glance, but the world is moving to wireless, almost forcing employees to have a cell phone anyway. Unless you're running a call center, cell phones meet all the phone needs of a typical small business. Voice mail is included. The concept of a receptionist, or worse an automated attendant system, is outdated. Putting customers on hold and transferring them three times is not a "feature" anyone should want in a phone system. VoIP and hacking together open source voice mail systems are neat technologies, but they're overkill for typical small business. If you need a small phone system, Siemens makes the GigaSet line that is well engineered with voicemail and wireless. When I last looked, they were about $350 + $80 per handset, maximum of 8 users. New models include routers and other cool stuff.

    QuickBooks. Definitely NOT open source, but hopefully someone will create an open source program that can read QB data, or at least a native Linux version of QB. For now, QB Pro 2000 runs under CrossOver, but it's ugly. QB can actually be used for a lot more than accounting. If you like, it'll manage a customer/contact database, track time for hourly employees, provide rudimentary project management, etc.

    In the perfect world, there would be one system that did everything. It'd be well integrated, easy to use and open source. That world will never exist, but we can come close. The goal should still be as few systems as possible, less complexity, lowest cost, and maximum ease of use. It should scale well when new employees are added. A small geek company like mine could easily go broke trying to create the perfect system. There are times when close enough will have to do, so you can get to the paying work and the never ending stream of government forms and accounting.

  • by ( 614258 ) <> on Saturday March 13, 2004 @02:30PM (#8552530) Homepage
    Let the results speak for themselves.
    I agree. Yet, in creating a virtual office you're talking about being nearly 100% results oriented. And we're not talking about a few virtual employees, we're talking about virtually all your employees and contractors.

    When you are doling out 600k/year for 10 or so virtual employees, and this number is growing, you still need to have a feel for the daily operations of your business. It's not the same as micromanaging. You need to know where there are issues and bottlenecks and how they are being handled on a day to day basis. Virtual companies don't eliminate the need to manage daily operations, and daily operations are not micromanaging. Operations management is a fundamental part of running a business.

    It isn't easy to be purely results oriented. What do you do whan results are under par after 6 months of work? How do you account for and change things?

    It goes both ways, too. I spent over half my career working at home for clients, and I learned to physically appear and demonstrate what I produced on a weekly basis, to offer assurance. Yet, even with this, the virtual employee/contractor still lacks the same means to obtain recognition and promotion. "Out of site, out of mind" was what one client said when he accidentally gave away my cubicle to another contractor.

    Let's say in results oriented management you conclude that the team was successful for the past 6 months. Sure, that's reason to be happy. But you'll have to wonder to what extent the individuals contributed, both to reward your best workers, and possibly to weed out slackers. Yes, slackers do exist. There are bound to be at least one or two out of every ten. Perhaps they have learned ways to appear productive when indeed they are not, simply because you don't have any real solid metrics to assess personal productivity, and don't have the traditional model where everyone is aware of what their teammates are truly doing.

    Virtual enterprises can succeed. It is simply a great challenge to build a company solely on a large pool of virtual employees. This challenge tends to be more related to people than technology.

  • by hesperant ( 561360 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @10:41AM (#8567917) Homepage
    I have been running a virtual office with linux and windows based on a large variety of technologies that are available.

    My methods are fairly primitive, but they do work.
    IM is a good medium for messages.
    TeamSpeak or Ventrilo for voice communication.
    and of coarse E-Mail.

    What I have been going after is eGroupware. This web based application is very very nice and clean. A pain to install but worth the frustration.
    I have quite a few ideas and how to put them together. Not impossible and usefull to say the least. Anyone got a project going that would be interested in some idea's?


Don't sweat it -- it's only ones and zeros. -- P. Skelly