Building Net Gain

An On-Line Presence Can Give Your Company the Bottom-Line Advantage.

If 1995 was the year that business got interested in the Internet, then 1996 has been the year that it got serious about it. That means 1997 is shaping up to be the year when smart companies in all industries start exploiting cyberspace aggressively to gain business advantage.

Many real estate professionals have been content to experiment on the fringes of the Internet without committing serious outlays to it. But that "grace period" is fast coming to an end, and savvy Web operators are learning how to exploit the Internet for gathering, organizing, and publishing information cheaply and effectively.

Don't panic: "serious outlays" does not mean anywhere near what it once did. In an economic development that proves Internet service is here to stay, the cost of setting up a complete on-line presence for a company has plummeted. You can develop a full-fledged Internet site for about $5,000 and maintain your presence for just a few hundred dollars a month—a fraction of what it cost only three years ago. Or, you can "rent" space on an established Internet provider's server even more cheaply. Whatever you choose, the time has come to begin using the Internet to maximum advantage.

Rent or Buy?
If your company is large or spread out over several offices, you'll probably want to buy your own dedicated server, connected 24 hours a day to the Net. Another solution that makes a great deal of sense for many small firms is to pay an outside Internet service provider (ISP) to maintain a corporate presence for your firm at its site.

But before dialing up a local ISP, even small firms should weigh the advantages of buying dedicated servers. Ownership gives you total control over your destiny—important to consider when you're constantly adding information to your site. For instance, if your program-heavy site is sharing an ISP server with 10 other businesses—well, no one makes performance guarantees, and slow servers cause frustration. On the other hand, if you find an ISP with a fast server reserved for its business accounts, renting may work well for you. Eventually though, if you plan to thoroughly load your Web site with the intent of becoming "the on-line source" of commercial real estate information in, say, the South-west, it becomes more economical to buy than to rent.

If your plans are slightly less grandiose, renting may be the more logical choice. To your advantage, you have more than 2,500 ISPs from which to choose, and the number is growing rapidly. The vast majority of these companies are small businesses. Unlike nationwide providers of Internet access, local operators often can match low prices with personal attention and responsive customer service. There isn't anything that AT&T or America Online knows that these local providers don't know. Indeed, local providers usually know more because they're run by technical experts who have an entrepreneurial streak.

Renting an Internet site from a local ISP will still require you to dedicate a machine at your office as "the Internet machine." You also will need a modem to connect with the provider, as well as an interface to your local area network. Expect to pay one-time costs of $100 to $300 to a local provider for setting up the account and registering your company's domain name. (The "domain" is that portion that makes your Web address unique, like toyota.com in .) After that, monthly maintenance costs of $100 to $200 for the site are common. In addition, if you supply employees with their own Internet mailboxes and Web browsers, you'll need to pay monthly fees of $10 or more for each user.

Should you decide to go the in-house server route, you will still need to connect to the Internet, and again, the local ISP is your best bet. The difference is that your only cost to the provider is a dedicated, leased telephone line that connects your server to the Net.

Shrink-Wrapped Solutions
Until recently, the only viable server solution for companies wishing to set up Internet sites was some variation of the Unix operating system—notoriously complex and requiring administrators with extensive programming experience. Fortunately, a number of excellent shrink-wrapped solutions are now on the market that compete with Unix in features and power and run circles around it in ease of use and maintenance.

For IBM PCs, comparable all-in-one software packages include Spry Internet Office or OnNet from FTP Software. Your local ISP can recommend a reseller of a Pentium computer configured for use on the Net. Apple has a total, all-in-one approach in its Apple Internet Server Solution that comes with a Macintosh server, beginning at about $5,000.

One of the virtues of the Internet is that it breaks down the traditional barriers between computers, so your server platform does not have to match the platform of all the other computers in your office. This means you can purchase laptops for your more-mobile employees and not worry that they won't be able to grab their e-mail from the road. Internet solutions for each platform communicate with each other.

Design and Maintenance
Whether you buy or rent, you'll need to make two other investments before you're fully in cyberspace:

  • An outside firm to design your Web site. You could design your own Web pages, of course, but there are so many considerations. Any Web design firm knows how to build clean, quick-loading pages for you, and will do it for a competitive price that easily beats the time you'd spend doing it yourself.
  • Software for maintaining Web pages. Though a design firm makes sense when you are first building your site, many pages will change content monthly, if not weekly. You will probably want someone in-house to make those changes or (depending on your resources) to maintain the whole site after it launches. Adobe's PageMill has quickly won many adherents for its ease of use in designing Web pages. It functions very much like a desktop-publishing program, but it doesn't exploit every Web-page feature, so your Web expert may want to look at more sophisticated programs, such as Web Media Publisher (), Hot Dog (), and the forthcoming Net Objects () for Windows or BBEdit with HTML Tools for the Macintosh.

Any of these tools are available for about $100 or less; however, as with everything else related to the Web, development tools are very much on the bleeding edge, are constantly being updated, and need experts to exploit the mostly undocumented features. In other words, programming experience definitely counts.

Internet to Intranet
In addition to all the hype about Internet solutions, we're now starting to hear more about "intranet" solutions. An intranet is simply a local area network (LAN) or a series of LANs linked in a wide area network (WAN), running programs that share information in a manner very similar to the public Internet. Companies large and small are setting up their own internal Web servers, and employees are publishing home pages that allow other employees to access crucial information using an easy, point-and-click approach.

Intranets are exciting for a very good reason: business networking solutions in the past have been expensive, proprietary, and difficult to master. But the metaphor of the Web—an endless extending network of connections, decentralized for maximum versatility and creativity—and the elegance of tools like Netscape are winning people over to a new way of thinking. It is possible that the way we view and present information will someday not depend on our mastering the idiosyncrasies of five or six different computer programs, but two or three that follow the same external logic—the logic of the Internet, with its easy ebb and flow of information between machines, an affordable, flexible alternative to the old logic of the paper office.

Aaron Barnhart

Aaron Barnhart is a Chicago-based Internet consultant and writer on media and technology. You can reach him at [email protected] [email protected] Internet security made great strides in 1996, and as a result, all types of electronic commerce are unfolding. Wells Fargo Bank and Bank of America customers can transfer funds between accounts on-line and also pay bills. AT&T customers can have Internet access to credit card accounts, and by the end of the year, they will be able to pay bills and transfer funds to AT&T. VISA and MasterCard have joined forces with Netscape Communications and Microsoft to develop a level of secure software that ensures safe electronic transactions. For real estate professionals, the biggest security stumbling block may be the verification of contracts and other legal documents sent electronically. Various encryption measures and secure Web browser technology are making it possible to verify transmitted documents--and making it nearly impossible for third parties to decode transmitted data. Netscape browsers and servers can create a secure environment in which to conduct business on-line. A primary component is authentication, which essentially assures you that the person with whom you think you\'re communicating is indeed that person. Authentication uses an encryption technology known as a digital signature. Based on public-key cryptography techniques, it has no relation to the familiar, handwritten signature. Instead, a digital signature is essentially an identifier--an unforgeable piece of data assuring that the named person wrote or otherwise agreed to the document to which the signature is attached. All parties to a transaction can easily verify both that the document did indeed originate from the person whose signature is attached and that the document has not been altered since it was signed. Secure digital signatures cannot be repudiated, meaning that the signer of a document cannot later disown it by claiming it was forged. Digitally signed messages can be proved authentic in court, thus allowing such messages to be legally binding. Digital signatures are facilitating immediate handling of financial transactions over the Net. Title companies and mortgage lenders are rapidly implementing secure authentication technology so that real estate deals can eventually be closed completely via the Internet. For more information on how to obtain and use your own digital signature, visit the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) Web site at http://web.mit.edu/network/pgp-form.html and the RSA Data Security site at http://www.rsa.com. In addition to authentication, Web security employs encryption and integrity to ensure safe transmittal of documents. Encryption provides e-mail security by scrambling a message before transmission, which the recipient then unscrambles. Public-key cryptography is the current method of choice for encryption, and PGP, available free on the Net at the above Web address, is one of the most widely used encryption systems. Integrity verifies that the content of a message arrives at its destination in the same form it was sent. This may also be accomplished with public-key cryptography, because it\'s assumed that if the signature isn\'t broken, the message must be the one sent.