Finding The Right Solutions For IRS Problems   ★

frsoirsEncountering IRS problems is nerve wrecking and stressful for those who have not yet experienced it. Basically, being unable to pay the taxes is like committing a crime to the government. It has its own consequences, which can be a lot of problem later on. That is why; individuals should settle their IRS problems as soon as possible, whenever it exists. The first thing to do is to seek help from friends or family who are familiar with this kind of problem. But in case they have no idea at all, it is advisable to review the tax payments done in the past and compute the amount that should be given back to the government.

Seeking professional help can be a lot of help but it entails another set of expenses so better seek an appointment to the Internal Revenue Service. By doing so, it will give you an opportunity to discuss your concerns and how you should go about it. Do not forget to consider also the services from the Taxpayer Advocate Service. This office will assist you in case the IRS is not available or cannot be reached. Just have a lot of patience and positive attitude to fix your IRS problems as soon as possible.

The Best Tax Relief Company

Finding the best tax relief company is not difficult as anyone can think of. There are a number of law firms and accounting companies who can handle any IRS problems. All you have to do is to research these companies in order to know which one works best for you. First, ask referrals from your friends. If they do not know any tax relief company, ask if they can recommend someone who knows it well. Make a list on these companies in order for you to distinguish their strengths and weaknesses. Second, narrow down your research on these tax relief services. Do not just eliminate a company on the list if you have not researched it well or you have not visited it yet.

Third, use the internet as your reference. There are several strategies in the internet that you can make use of so it can be helpful if you take time to read and understand everything. Do not settle for a company that has a few years of experience in settling a tax debt. Lastly, consider the possible costs of any tax relief company. There are different professional fees from one company to the other so take time to find which one works for your budget.

Repair Your Dell PowerEdge RAID 5   ★

ra5If you are a computer savvy, you can perform a RAID 5 repair all by yourself. It is not difficult to fix this kind of computer concern as long as you are guided appropriately. However, you have to take note that when you start to repair a Dell PowerEdge RAID 5, you should be certain about what you are doing. Once you get into the guts of a Dell server, there is no turning back. So if you are not confident about it, it’s better seek the expertise of a computer technician.

But you should ensure that the technician you hire can retrieve all the lost files within the redundant array of inexpensive disks. You’ll want to ensure that the company is Dell certified to work with PowerEdge RAID arrays.

Therefore, the best thing that you have to do first is to research well online and offline. You can ask referrals from your friends in order to figure out who works with these servers. You can also search online so that you can have a number of sources for the services. But make no mistake: a RAID 5 repair should only be done by a computer technician who can truly manage the recovery of files.

Comparing The Outcomes

Here is a common scenario: you have been negligent when using your hard drive, or maybe you were just in a rush so you had to simply unplug the USB (universal serial bus) because you are out of time. Now, you have not been cautious or you forgot that you can possibly damage the hard drive’s contents or systems by not safely ejecting the USB. Right on the day that you need your files, you suddenly get a prompt that says you need to scan and fix your hard drive.

Now, the beauty of this is that if you are actually running a Dell PowerEdge RAID array as a backup server, you are probably going to be safe. The reality is that RAID arrays give you the ability to lose a drive or two, and the parity information available on the remaining drives allows you to safely recover that data. For this, you don’t even need to have any data recovery expertise; instead, you can use Dell’s DSET to determine what exactly the fix should be. It’s easier than you think, to be sure.

VM, 24/7 On The QT   ★

Naturally, the early adopters of this hot (or should we say cool) new technology tend to be big companies with big bucks to blow on the latest telecom software. But some small and midsize firms are also jumping on the UM bandwagon to solve internal and external communications problems and get a quantum leap on their competition.

Without going into all the geekspeak, UM basically refers to the ability to access all your messages–voice mall, e-mail, and faxes–in one place, from either a phone or a PC.

According to Ken Myer, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Active Voice, one of the leading providers of this new technology, there’s no time like the present. “People are inundated with messages, with e-mails, voice mails, and faxes. It’s wonderful we can communicate in a variety of ways. But we’re using different devices and different systems–some automated, some manual–to retrieve these messages. People want to get all the kinds of messages that come to them wherever they are and with whatever device they have in front of them. Unified messaging delivers that capability.”

Alan Perkins, senior manager for Nortel Networks Small Business Solutions Portfolio Market Group, believes that UM enhances productivity: “Unified messaging is a message management tool that allows users to take control of the messages they receive.

ltVincent J. Deschamps, vice president and general manager of UM for Lucent Technologies, says their studies show UM appeals to four user groups. The first is executives, who love the ability to “sync up” their messages, especially when traveling.

The second group includes mobile professionals such as salespeople, support staff, and project teams. “They particularly like having the same directory for e-mail and voice mail,” reports Deschamps. “With separately administered systems, the only people on your voice-mail system are those who have mailboxes, versus anyone you might have an e-mail address for.”

Deschamps says telecommuters, the third group, are also addicted to UM. “In services businesses, they’re keeping every type of e-communication with people, and now they can save voice-mall attachments in a personal folder on their PC as part of the record.”

The fourth group Lucent identified is call center and customer support personnel. “Many of these people utilize applications like Microsoft Exchange,” says Deschamps. “So managing voice, fax, and e-mail in the same inbox and on the same server is invaluable. They have a complete historical record in one place.”

Donna Dilley, product marketing manager for the Corporate Networks Group at NEC America, says UM is catching on with retailers and warehouse personnel who can manage communications via mobile phone while moving around their facilities. Dilley is personally big on the ability to forward a voice mail with only a point and click.

Companies that use UM are true believers. “Even when we are without computer access, we are still only a few touch-tones away from our verbal, electronic, and paper-based messages,” states Steven Oliveri, director of information services at Morgenthaler Ventures. “The ability to communicate quicker and easier, regardless of location or method, gives us our competitive edge.”

Like any new technology, UM can be a bit pricey, but Myer says its benefits are quantifiable. “The biggest impact is on responsiveness to your customers. If the only time your sales people can respond to an e-mail is when they get to the office, they’re not being responsive. I can set up our Unity system so my pager goes off whenever I get an urgent e-mail.”

Deschamps cites a study by the Radicati Group, a Palo Alto marketing and consulting firm, on the total cost of ownership of Lucent Unified Messenger products that work with Microsoft Exchange. “They found it reduced operating expenses by 70 percent and saved users, on average, an hour a day.” Why the drop in costs? “You’re supporting one platform instead of two,” explains Deschamps. “They interviewed companies with 50 employees on up and found the savings were scalable across the board.”

One fly in the UM ointment is the love bug problem. Some firms recently discovered that as your e-mail goes, so goes your voice mall. But Deschamps argues that that depends on the software. “At Lucent, we have a bullet-proof product. Even if someone takes their e-mail system down, our product stays up and answers the phone, and when the mail system comes back up, [it] transfers the messages over.”

Myer admits although viruses are a consideration, the advantages of UM outweigh the disadvantages. “Risks are inherent in any new technology. Most people make decisions for what will happen 90 percent of the time, not one percent.” What’s more, he notes, during a snowstorm this winter that closed a client’s plant, employees were able to access all their messages and stay in touch with customers via mobile phones.

At present, most UM software operates on top of Microsoft Exchange. So if you already use that, you may be in UM business.

The really big UM bugaboo is compatibility with your current phone system, a problem that can be averted, for the most part, if your system supplier has a strategic alliance with one of the UM providers. “If you order the product from an Active Voice strategic partner, the telephone integration is extremely strong because they own all aspects of how that voice mail talks to the switch,” says Myer.

Perkins echoes this sentiment. “Nortel’s system is proprietary, so if someone has a Norstar phone system and wants to add this feature, it’s very cost-effective and easy to do, with no need to replace hardware .”

Pike Goss, director of marketing for Key Voice, stresses his company’s commitment to service: “We provide tight integration to the customer’s phone system, deliver more technology for [the customer’s] investment, and provide speed and accessibility to technical support during opportune moments to demonstrate customer care.

Lucent sells UM through their messaging integrators, who are also Microsoft Solution partners. “We’re finding [that] smaller businesses are doing their own support as well,” Deschamps adds. “We offer a one-week training class where customers who have MS, MCSE, or MCP certification can become self-certified.”

Active Voice’s UM products are also sold direct. “We have developed an expertise in telephone integration,” Myer insists. “We offer the capability to attach our systems to over 100 telephone switches.”

Dilley cautions that buying multiple vendor products that don’t work together can be a major pitfall. “Step back and ask, ‘Do I want unified messaging? What systems have it?’ Our NEAXMail platform works with single key systems all the way up to 60,000 ports.”

Most of the big UM players initially launched a product for big corporations, but now have versions suited for small to midsize companies. Myer believes one of UM’s biggest selling features is its readiness for IP convergence, coming right around the bandwidth bend. “Unity was created with convergence in mind, but if you don’t want to install an IP telephone switch today, that’s fine. We’re ready when you connect.”

Chris Walsh, president of Telephone System Learning Seminars, remains bearish on UM. “The issue today is functionality and format. Each of the UM systems does it differently, which causes a lot of problems.”

Walsh says the best new voice-mail feature is “simplification.” Instead of the system asking you to state your name or asking for an individual word or subject, it says it for you, then asks you to say yes or no. Walsh also advocates “dial 0 simplification” software that initiates a different operator for each individual in the company.

Telecom industry analysts are cautious about the UM hype. Blair Pleasant, director of communications analysis for the Pelorus Group, asserts, “The UM market has not taken off as predicted. However, the benefits of UM are so compelling, it’s only reasonable to assume that UM will be the norm in the next few years.”

Frank Stinson, senior product manager with Phillips Infotech, predicts a gradual slowdown in the rate of growth in the phone system industry, due partly to Y2K, which caused many businesses to upgrade equipment.

The silicon lining in this investment, however, may be an ability to deploy UM and beat your competitors to the punch. A recent survey by Accountemps revealed that 73 percent of CFOs think by 2006, e-mail will be the most commonly used method of communicating, with phone contact plummeting to 10 percent.

Lest you think UM is cyberpie-in-the-sky, one final high-tech reality check: People in Scandinavia are walking around wearing mini cell-phones on their heads. Just call it another example of life imitating technology. The 24/7 voice-messaging machine has arrived-and it is us.

Communication (And Cash) Is King!   ★

Phone, fax, and E-mail have made it easier to keep in touch, but haven’t done anything to help us communicate more effectively. If anything, there’s more confusion, especially about which methods of communication are most appropriate for different situations.

We asked experts about the best way to talk to clients, chat with coworkers, or write to customers, and all of them gave the same basic advice: Home-based workers should know their medium’s ground rules and express themselves accurately. Follow these tips and you’ll be heard and read more clearly.

E-MAIL

When to Use It E-mail is best used for conveying key information, confirming appointments, documenting decisions, or contacting a decisionmaker directly, says Nancy Flynn, a Columbus, Ohio-based consultant and author of Writing Effective E-Mail ($11; Crisp Publications Inc.).

How to Get the Most From It Choose Your Words Carefully

E-mail combines the immediacy of a phone call with the permanence of a letter, so don’t write something that might be misconstrued as sarcastic or insulting, cautions Flynn.

Follow Basic Writing Rules

Something about e-mail leads people to adopt primitive grunts and arcane symbols, but this is no time to be sloppy, says Flynn. Conventional grammar, spelling, and punctuation will always help your message be more easily understood.

Hello and Goodbye

Don’t ignore greetings, closings, and subject lines, recommends Flynn. They don’t just convey your contact data and the subject of your note, but also help the reader file away or act on the information contained within.

Keep It Simple

Many e-mail programs let the writer add a variety of font and color effects. Don’t. Chances are the recipient’s program can’t translate them, so you’re just wasting your time.

Don’t Shout

Something about e-mail leads people to use uppercase and lots of exclamation marks. Let the words themselves add emphasis, says Flynn.

Biggest Faux Pas

Bandwidth abuse-sending 5MB worth of image files to a client with a 56Kbps dial-up Internet connection will only cause headaches. Instead, use the phone first and ask what sizes and types of files are welcome on the other end.

FAX

faxWhen to Use It Faxing is often the easiest way to send complete documents for signature, drafts for approval, or notes to an associate who doesn’t have e-mail, says Karen Lawson, president of Lansdale, Pa.-based Lawson Consulting Group, which does management and organizational consulting for businesses.

How to Get the Most From It

Call Ahead

Many home-based workers don’t keep their fax machines on all day, employees at large corporations don’t always check their inboxes, and many people simply don’t want to pay to receive long fax documents, says Lawson. Calling prevents missed faxes, allows you to verify a number, and alerts the receiver that potentially sensitive documents are on the way.

Target Your Fax

Make sure your document has a professional-looking cover letter or header with the recipient’s name, business, and fax number, along with your name and contact information. This way, whoever picks up your fax knows where it belongs.

Follow Up

The only way to guarantee that your fax got to its destination is to follow up with a quick e-mail or phone call. But don’t overdo it: If you sent an unsolicited fax, your recipient may not appreciate subsequent messages.

Biggest Faux Pas

Sending personal or classified information–unless your recipient has his or her own fax machine, there’s no way to ensure confidentiality. Try courier services or overnight mail.

POSTAL MAIL

When to Use It “Snarl marl” is still a great way to send complicated materials, long documents, or formal thank-you notes and invitations, says George Harmon, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

How to Get the Most From It

Summarize Key Points Near the Start Don’t put important info at the end of your letter or memo. If it’s a long document containing important business matters, insert a one-paragraph summary at the beginning.

Eschew Obfuscation

Try to cut down on jargon, pleads Harmon. “The worst offender is M.B.A.-speak–that ‘value-added, synergistic’ way of talking” he says.

Avoid Passive Voice

This rock-solid approach to writing has gone mysteriously AWOL, according to Harmon. “The sales report was reviewed by the executive committee on Thursday” changes easily into the much more direct and active “The executive committee reviewed the sales report on Thursday.”

Break It Up

Use brief points. Bulleted items aid the reader’s natural tendency to skim for key words. Harmon suggests that sentences should average 15 to 16 words, but be varied in length to avoid a “clip-clop” rhythm.

Biggest Faux Pas

Overreliance on your spell-checker–read your work before sending it, to avoid duplicated or misspelled words.

TELEPHONE

When to Use It

The phone’s ability to convey emotion makes it the ideal medium to use when a face-to-face meeting is impossible but delicate business must still be conducted.

How to Get the Most From It; Know Your Audience

Some people like to make small talk during business conversations, while others want to cut the chatter and cut a deal, says Deb Haggerty, president of Positive Connections, a management consulting firm in Orlando, Fla. Assess what type of caller you’re talking to and go with the flow.

Make Appointments

You set aside time to meet with someone in person, so why not make appointments for important telephone calls? By booking a specific time, you can be assured that the party you are calling will be focused on the conversation, and likely will have done some prep work beforehand, making the call more productive.

Listen

Listening is a lost art, says Christina McCale, marketing manager for US West’s Extended Workplace Solutions division. “So often we don’t let the other person finish, or we let call waiting interrupt a call,” she says. To stay focused on the speaker, try framing questions to elicit more detail from a person’s last remark.

Biggest Faux Pas

Multitasking while using a speakerphone–the other party can almost certainly hear that keyboard clicking while you respond to someone else’s e-mail. Stay on the subject–it ensures you’ll never miss a key point from the call.

Remoting It!   ★

Take your office with you using the latest technology tools. Conduct business as usual wherever you go, and return to your office with a clean desk. What a great feeling!

You have to make the trip, but you dread the work that piles up while you’re gone–e-mail, voice mail, faxes–not to mention people who must see you on your first day back.

With a little planning, and some help along the way, there’s very little you can’t do on the road that you’d do sitting at your office desk. Today, we have pagers, wireless phones, laptops, PDAs (personal digital assistants), and a host of other electronic marvels to help us stay in touch, whether we’re at a branch office, a home office, or on the road–most anywhere in the world.

The big benefit, of course, is the ability to conduct business in real time. Internet access is getting easier. Airports, airlines, travel agencies, and hotels offer many new services. Other travel aids are in the works. Let’s take a look.

The new world of wireless

riTwo-way radio is hardly new, having been developed and first used during World War I. For many years, its use was restricted to planes, ships, military, police, and fire departments. It wasn’t until cellular phone service was established 20 years ago that individuals had access to wireless telephones. Today, we have PCS (personal communications service) wireless phone systems that compete with cellular.

Until recently, all cellular phone service used old-fashioned analog technology. When PCS was born–using the newer digital technology–it offered several benefits, including better sound quality and a higher level of security. Cellular carriers are slowly changing their systems to digital but now offer phones that switch automatically back and forth between analog and cellular, so they can be used anywhere.

PCS systems are not without problems. Because they operate on much lower power than cellular, many more antennas are required. While not a problem in most cities and suburbs, service can be poor or nonexistent in rural areas. The latest problem in some areas is the inability to get a line during peak use periods, due to the capacity of the system.

For travelers who want more than just a wireless phone, there’s carrier Nextel, offering a digital phone, voice mail, speaker phone, caller ID, and a text and numeric pager–all in one handheld device. If you’re not blown away by all that, Nextel can also provide old-fashioned two-way radio service, a la taxicabs, allowing you to broadcast to any number of your own people, all at once. Nextel now offers, thanks to satellites, service to 65 countries, using a single phone number.

Getting information and making reservations

Making travel arrangements while you’re sitting in your office is fairly easy, but when you’re on the road and need to make changes, it can get a bit dicey. Things don’t always go as planned, especially with the airlines! With airlines, hotels, and car rental agencies encouraging you to use the Internet, and with the benefits this brings, just about everyone would like to continue using the Web while traveling. That’s now possible through a wireless connection.

Save time and headaches by working with a travel agency that’s online 24 hours a day, seven days a week. One contact and you can make all your changes. Some agencies, like many hotels, have click-to-talk options or a fast-track 800 number, if you need to talk to a live person.

Or go to www.hotelguide.com, which offers complete information for hotels and destinations around the world. You can view maps, service guides, and even comments from recent hotel and resort guests.

Travel agents now charge a fee for every paper ticket they write. To avoid this charge, book reservations directly, either by phone or the Internet. I suggest using the Internet even if you continue to work with a regular travel agent because:

1. You can access the same up-to-the-minute information available to travel agents.

2. Even if you can’t plan travel several weeks in advance, you can still find economical fares, especially if you can be flexible about departure and arrival times.

3. The Internet is your best single source of travel information.

Expect to spend some time getting acquainted with the travel information on the Internet. With so much information available, searching can be both frustrating and time-consuming at first.

To make reservations and purchase tickets on-line, you have two options:

1. Contact each airline, hotel and car rental company separately, or;

2. Work with an online travel agency, such as Travelocity, Expedia, or Biztravel, among others. The benefit of dealing with each provider separately is that you can download direct-access software, saving you time in the future. Some airlines reward you with extra frequent flyer miles for using their Web services.

The major benefit of using an online travel agency is the same as with a conventional travel agent–they handle everything. You can view every flight to your destination, or simply shop for the lowest price. You can do all this while traveling, using a wireless phone, laptop, or PDA. Thanks to wireless connections, the traveling PC, in whatever configuration, can now communicate with just about anyone, anywhere in the world.

E-mail, anytime, anywhere

Access to the Internet while traveling has been a hit-or-miss proposition, but things are looking up. Unless you carried a coupler to attach to a telephone handset, or were lucky enough to find an airport clubroom that was wired, getting your e-mail on the road was a real chore.

Today’s business travelers are demanding–and getting–much better Internet access, especially in hotel guest rooms, where it’s most needed. Many hotels have had room jacks for some time, but service was slow and sometimes unreliable. Now many hotels are installing high-speed systems in every meeting and guest room.

Wyndham hotels, for example, are now installing such systems in every room in more than 200 properties. Marriott has some properties wired, and Radisson is now installing high-speed systems in all their company-owned properties. Expect others to follow. You’ll want to check before making reservations, then ask specifically for a room that’s wired.

Thanks to wireless technology, you can not only send and receive e-mail from just about anywhere in the world, but you can also access corporate data in real-time, just as if you were sitting at your desk. Small amounts of data can be transmitted inexpensively via an alphanumeric pager. Two-way pagers are now popular, allowing not only a confirmation that your message was received, but providing the capability of immediate message return. Some paging carriers offer add-ons for handheld computers like the Palm Pilot, greatly increasing the pager’s capacity.

Wireless modems can be attached to, and in some cases, are built into, laptops, PDAs, and wireless phones. While used primarily to send and receive e-mail today, this equipment will be able to handle larger amounts of data as storage capacity increases. At press time, Nextel was about to introduce its own data network, which should shake up the industry and help reduce prices.

A whole range of devices and software is coming to market to aid in mobile data transfer. PDAs with integrated wireless data capabilities and add-on cards for existing devices are now available. Motorola has developed a line of two-way pagers and cards that work with Palm Pilots and similar devices. In the future, look for more software to be built into PDAs, mobile phones, notebooks, and desktops to simplify data transfer.

Virtual private networks

If your organization has its own intranet, you can send and receive unlimited data while traveling, using any of the devices just mentioned.

Most large corporations use their own dedicated remote access servers, such as those provided by Perle Systems. In other words, they are their own Internet service provider (ISP). A less expensive alternative is the Virtual Private Network (VPN), which uses public ISPs as the transport backbone for communication and data transfer between headquarters and mobile employees. Companies such as CheckPoint Software Technologies offer a wide variety of VPN services, which are now affordable to smaller companies. Major benefits of these systems are speed and security.

Getting more done

We’re now witnessing a major shift in how people communicate when traveling. Today they want a car phone while driving. They want a pocket phone at the airport–forget the pay phones. On the airplane, they want a phone in the seatback in front of them. Then, they’re back to the pocket phone upon arrival. Salespeople want to transmit orders as soon as they receive them. They want constant updates on pricing and product availability. Executives want to access corporate data banks. The list in endless.

Setting up a videoconference while traveling is easier now that most hotels offer this service. Today’s equipment is quite portable, so you can set up a conference from just about any room in the hotel, including guest rooms or small meeting rooms. Costs have dropped substantially, especially if you’re using two or more hotels in the same chain. Many companies are saving substantially by using videoconferencing for training.

It’s all about getting more done while on the road. Taking your office with you is now a reality. Makes you wonder if you really need that desk and chair back in your office!

The “Good Ol’ Days” Of Web Video?   ★

Almost anything is good enough for the Web, and that lets almost anyone play with Web video. By accepting small windows for the video, the massive amount of bandwidth required for video goes away. A 160×120 video window at only 5 frames per second (fps) requires a mere 100,000 bps for video. With only a 2:1 compression, that fits comfortably into the bandwidth provided by a cable modem.

The high compression ratio of many of the current video compressors means that either the frame rate can be increased or the size of the window increased. Or sometimes both. The trick is always to create the best video, given the constraints.

CyberTainment CyberMail AV VIDEOemail

veFortunately, playing with video for the Internet has never been cheaper or easier. For around $150, CyberTainment  sells Cy-berMail AV. This is a product designed to make it easy to send video e-mail to anyone on the Internet, and CyberTainment takes an interesting approach with this package.

It comes with a PCI board to capture the video. So that you’d have something to plug in and get running right away, it also comes with a small video camera that sits on top of the monitor. To round out the hardware, a microphone is included.

On the software side, an easy-to-use application is included, which is optimized for sending video e-mail. CyberMail AV has only a few controls, so it is quick to learn. The Videoemail Wizard takes you step by step through specifying the type of mail, capturing the video, and sending the mail. It doesn’t take much time at all for surprisingly good results.

The heart of the system is a proprietary compression algorithm that the company claims can compress video by up to 900:1. At this level of compression, it isn’t an undue burden to have someone download a chunk of video with their mail. Once a video clip is recorded, it is compressed and packaged for delivery into an EXE file. This is actually a self-contained program that, when run, plays back the original video.

By packaging the video in this way, there is no need to guess at what kind of software happens to be installed on the recipient’s machine. All of the required software is built in. The recipient just opens the attached e-mail, and the video starts to play.

(Note: In these days of e-mail viruses, it would be a good idea to warn someone that you will be sending a video mail message ahead of time.)

The PCI video capture card is based on the popular Brooktree capture chipset and ships with a standard set of Video for Windows drivers. Not only will it work with the software shipped with the system, it will work with most other programs that can use Video for Windows. You aren’t restricted to using the little camera that comes in the package, either. The capture board has two NTSC inputs and one S-video input. (The included camera is NTSC.) You can easily hook up any other camcorder, VCR or even a video game.

The CyberMail AV software can squash the video enough to cram a 29-second video into a file of only 315K. If you are sending video mail to someone with a better Internet connection, you can adjust the quality to match. If you just want to send an audio message, the wizard will happily create an audio-only file. In the last step of the wizard, you are prompted for e-mail addresses, and, assuming that you are connected to the Internet, it sends out the video. It’s all quick, easy, and self contained.

Magix Audio & Video Office

Audio & Video Office ($99.99 MSRP) is the latest multimedia editing program from Magix Entertainment . (For the sake of my spell checker, I’ll be referring to this product as Audio & Video Office.) It’s a great way to manipulate your movies before sending up to the Internet.

Audio & Video Office uses a timeline as its main user interface. Audio and video clips are dropped on the timeline, previewed, and eventually rendered into a final format. Sound easy? Well, it is.

To get things started, Audio & Video Office comes with hundreds of audio clips and dozens of video clips. (The premium version on DVD comes with even more.) Magix makes it easy to be a composer by providing audio files of small musical chunks. By mixing and matching the various chunks, you can create an original composition without actually having to record anything musical yourself. It is easier than it sounds. First, you pick a style of music, such as Dance, Rock, or Easy Listening. Within each category, sounds are broken down into subgroups of Bass, Drums, Harmony, and Melody.

It is usually easiest to start with Drums. Drag a beat that sounds good onto the timeline. Repeat that beat two or four times, then pick another, related beat. Keep going until you have filled as much time as your presentation will need. Then start adding some Bass sound chunks to the drums. A little bit of Melody, and maybe a few sound effects, and you have a musical score. There is no restriction on using the audio files that ship on the CD. Any WAV or even MP3 file can be dropped onto the timeline.

Adding video to the timeline is also a drag-and-drop process. You can either use video clips that ship on the CD, or any others that you have captured or downloaded. Audio & Video Office does a good job of compositing video clips together. Clips can be scaled, rotated, and squashed. They can be keyed over one another, and they can have a number of image-processing effects applied. Titles can be added to the video. Any Rich Text Format (RTF) file can be used for the titles. Word and most other word-processing programs can save as RTF. There is also a built-in editor for titles.

There is a good selection of image-processing effects that can be applied to the video. Emboss gives the video the effect of being pressed into metal. This is particularly effective when used on a still of the first frame of a video clip, then released into the live video. Other effects include Blur, Kaleidoscope, Flip, Grain, and Whirlpool. Strobe settings and even a Fisheye Lens setting is included. A few clicks are all that it takes to alter the video.

Once your production is on the timeline, it can be exported to just about any format that you might consider useful. If you just want the soundtrack, it can be saved as an MP3, Real Audio, or a standard Windows WAV file. For a production with video, there are more options. The production can be saved as an AVI file, Microsoft ASF, Real Video or QuickTime. The ASF and Real Video formats are particularly well-suited to use on the Internet.

Don’t let the low price fool you. Audio & Video Office is a very powerful multimedia editing program.

Auto F/X Studio Pro 2 Bundle

Here’s another tool you will find helpful in preparing video for delivery to a Web site.

From time to time, I’ve written about the wonderful Photoshop plug-ins and graphics programs from Auto F/X. They tend to be inexpensive, but with so many of them, the money can add up. Now, there is some good news. Auto F/X has bundled together most of its software in a package with the amazing low price of just $199 (MSRP). This is nine CDs full of graphics, images, patterns, and programs. If you do much image processing, you should probably be writing the check now.

Well, maybe you’d like to know what you get for your two hundred bucks. OK, here goes. Typo/Graphic Edges, Ultimate Texture Collection, Photo/Graphic Patterns, Universal Animator, Universal Rasterizer, Photo/ Graphic Frames, Page/Edges, and WebVise Totality. That’s a mouthful.

Let’s start with Typo/Graphic Edges. This plug-in creates special effects with type. Starting with some text, you can choose from more than 400 styles to apply to the text. With the selected style, you can choose how severely to effect the text, and what the scale of the effect will be. The result is uniquely shaped characters, which are great for use in title screens.

Photo/Graphic Patterns provides a way to simulate some darkroom effects from within Photoshop. The basic idea is to take an image and apply it to a texture. This could be as subtle as crinkly paper or as severe as tree bark. In addition to the texture, Photo/ Graphic patterns can apply lighting to the scene. There are hundreds of textures from which to choose. While on the topic of textures, the Ultimate Texture Collection has more than 3,000 royalty-free textures.

Universal Animator and Universal Rasterizer are unusual programs. They each add their own printer driver to the system. For Universal Rasterizer, this means that any program that can print can create a bitmap graphic. Instead of letting the graphic go out to a printer, this “virtual printer” turns the would-be printout into a graphic file. Universal Animator goes a step further. Each print can be added as a frame in an animation. Frames can be added from any program running on the PC. It’s a neat trick.

Webvise Totality is a collection of six tools that are specifically designed to help with Web graphics. These utilities help create Web-safe palettes, optimize the compression of Web images, and can even add digital watermarking to the images. To help save time when working on many images, it provides the ability to batch up images for processing.

This is a great collection of Photoshop utilities and graphics that no artist or Web designer should have to do without.

Outlook Migration: A Royal Pain In The…   ★

For an established copy of Outlook this is simple: find the OUTLOOK.PST file that Outlook wants (right click at the top of the folder tree where it says Outlook Today, and go to Properties). Once you find that file, close Outlook and go rename the PST file to something like OUTLOOK.PSO. Now, invoke Outlook, and it will complain that it can’t find its PST file. There will be a dialog box, and you can use that to find any PST file on the network. It’s quite easy.

With a new installation of Outlook, it is not simple at all.

First, when you install Outlook, invoke it, and close it. It does not create a PST file, so there’s nothing to rename or delete. Your first move is to open Outlook, create a folder or two, move the “welcome” mail message from the Inbox to one of the folders, and exit. Now, it will have created a PST file that you can delete, and the next time you invoke Outlook it will complain about no PST file, and Bob’s your uncle. Now you can import your rules.

Well, not really. To import or export a Rules file, go to Tools | Rules Wizard | Options and proceed. Unfortunately, if you did what I told you in the paragraph above, there won’t BE a Rules Wizard option in Tools! In order to fix that, you need to create at least one account in the Outlook mail system. It doesn’t have to be a real account, but there must be one. Outlook In A Nutshell tells you how to do that. You will find that it’s either simple or hard depending on your experience. Either way, you’ll be well off getting the Nutshell book.

The reason you don’t want to set up real mail accounts until you have your rules in place should be obvious: Outlook, by default, goes out and looks at those accounts. If, like me, you’re networked so that you are online all the time, you’re likely to get a flood of mail as soon as Outlook does that, and unless your rules are in effect that mail won’t be sorted properly. Note, that if I unplug the Ethernet to Regina, Outlook won’t be able to get at the server and thus can’t find the PST file. Of course, there are ways to stop Outlook from gathering mail even though your system is connected to the Internet, but that’s one more thing to worry about.

Nearly Done

omThe good news is that once I imported my rules and set up my real mail accounts, everything worked. Almost. Since I am dealing with the same PST file that Princess created, everything must be in it. Right? Well, not quite.

I keep my subscriber list in a Contacts sub-folder. When I want to mail to subscribers, I start a new mail message, address it to myself, and then include the entire list as BCC or blind carbon copy. That way, everyone doesn’t get copies of everyone else’s name and address. Unfortunately, Outlook doesn’t show you the Contacts sub-folders when you try to invoke BCC. This is because while the top Contacts folder is automatically an Address Book, the folders under it are not, and only Address Books can be invoked in the To, CC, and BCC lines. Sure, you could type in the addresses manually, but no one is going to do that.

The remedy is right click again: right click the appropriate sub-folder, get Properties, go to the Address Book tab, and there’s a little box that will allow that folder to be an address book. Invoke it and Bob’s your uncle. The next time you send mail, you’ll be able to see that sub-folder as well as the main Contacts folder, and if you choose it you can add some or all of the names to your mail. This is actually a lot easier than it sounds; and the great news is that once all that is done, the migration of Outlook is complete, all’s right with the world or at least that part of it, the angels sing, and you are done.

Whew.

Backing Up Outlook

Outlook 2000 has some internal backup features, and also lets you export stuff, but since Outlook 2000 stores data all over the place in odd little files with weird names and extensions, you are unlikely to back it up properly by hand.

Fortunately, there is a shareware program called Outback Plus that will do the job for you. This program finds all the relevant bits and pieces of Outlook including the PST file, wraps them up in a bundle, and stores that wherever you would like. The default storage location is to floppy disks, which seems a bit odd. It would take a lot of floppies to backup my Outlook 2000. However, it’s easy enough to tell it to store that file elsewhere.

Outback has one problem: when you tell it to back up Outlook, it shows a small fuel gauge and the notation that it’s making the backup files. The fuel gauge fills up in a couple of minutes. The system trundles on. And on. And on. There is absolutely no indication that anything is happening except that your hard disk access light is blinking, and in my case the network lights blinked as well (since it was getting the data from a remote server, and Windows 2000 has that lovely system tray icon). Now, a couple of seconds’ reflection will convince you there’s no real problem here. We’re moving around a gigabyte of data over the Ethernet, bringing it here, compressing it, and shipping it back there where it’s to be stored. It’s going to take some time. The problem is, there’s no indication that things are going well.

The remedy is to do nothing: have faith, be patient, and eventually Outback will do its thing, and you’ll have a full backup of Outlook as of that moment. It’s comforting.

Of course there’s another hitch: Before Outback can run properly, you have to turn off Outlook 2000. Outback then opens enough of Outlook’s data files to find out where it needs to look for the rest. If Outlook is running it can’t do that.

That’s all right: if Outlook is running nothing can back up that Outlook.pst file. My friend and systems guru Roland found that out the hard way. He set Larry Niven’s system up with Veritas BackupExec to run automatically every night.

BackupExec has a mode in which it will supposedly backup files even if they are running. Every morning the system log would sometimes report a backup error, sometimes not. This meant nothing to Niven, who is still struggling to be computer literate (he’s been able to lean on me for so long that he got in the habit, and it’s only recently that he’s decided to learn for himself). It didn’t mean a lot more to Roland until I told him that you can NEVER access, open, or copy a PST file while Outlook is using it. Outlook, being a Microsoft product, knows how to lock that file at a level no backup or other program can ever get to.

So, sometimes the PST file would backup properly, and sometimes it wouldn’t. What was happening, of course, was that sometimes Niven would exit the program before going to bed. Other times he wouldn’t. If he didn’t, the PST file wouldn’t be backed up.

This is Outlook 2000 in Internet Mode (aka IMO) configuration. If you installed it as Corporate Workgroup, it’s worse. There are two exit modes, “exit” and “exit and log off.” You must use the latter exit mode if you want to backup the PST file (it only logs you off Outlook, not your system). If you merely exit, MAPISP.EXW (the MAPI spooler, and don’t worry about it) continues to run in background, OUTLOOK.PST is still open, and your PST file is still locked and can’t be backed up.

There are two morals to this story. First, if you use Outlook, get Outback, set it up, and use it. Second, if you want your Outlook.PST file backed up — and believe me, you do — then you must exit the Outlook program while backup is going on. If there are any exceptions to these rules no one I know has heard of them.

The good news is that once you understand Outlook 2000 and how to back it up, you’ll be able to get a lot of use out of Outlook. It’s really a good program. Unfortunately, it “just growed” without much intelligent design, which makes it a lot harder to use and nearly impossible to understand. I guess that’s true of a lot of Microsoft programs. They work, but they’ve been growing so fast there’s no logical design.

One of these days, a clever outfit is going to do some real design and integration of office-applications programs. When that happens, Microsoft will be in trouble. Of course Microsoft could do the job itself, but that would require that it bring some users rather than coding gurus onto the design team.

More Migration Anomalies

Regina, the Compaq Dual Pentium 750, came with NT4 Service Pack 4 installed. I upgraded that to SP 6, but when it came time to make Regina my main Internet machine, I wanted Windows 2000. I find 2000 a bit easier to use and it’s certainly easier if I’m going to be installing new hardware.

Regina was originally configured at Compaq with one kind of video board, but at the last minute it changed to a 3dLabs Oxygen GVX1 GLINT board. This meant that before I could convert to Windows 2000 I had to go online and find drivers. They were readily available from the 3dLabs website. I got them, unzipped them, and now I was ready.

The Windows 2000 Professional upgrade went smoothly, but there remain some mysteries. First, getting Windows 2000 to accept the 3dLabs drivers was painful. I used Control Panel/Install New Hardware, and it found the board all right, but it insisted it didn’t need no stinking drivers. However, it also recognized the board’s co-processor as new hardware, so I told it to install drivers for that. This went smoothly, after which W2K decided it needed video board drivers after all. I pointed it to the folder where I had put the downloaded drivers, and got a message: Microsoft has never tried those drivers, and doesn’t guarantee them, and you will be taking your life in your hands if you install them, do you want to do it anyway?

Yes, blast your eyes. It did, and that went smoothly. So far so good. Now I had Windows 2000 and the proper video drivers.

What I didn’t have was a Documents and Settings folder. I asked around: did anyone else know of an instance of Windows 2000 Professional that didn’t have a Documents and Settings folder? No one did. Roland was so astonished that he wanted to come take a look. We tried reinstalling Windows 2000. That went smoothly, complete with the Oxygen GVX1 drivers, but the result was the same: no Documents and Settings folder.

Instead, the information is found in WINNT/Profiles. Clearly there’s some registry setting that tells Windows 2000 to set things up this way, and we’re looking into what it is. So far, we haven’t found any reports, maybe next month. Everything works. The SP750 is fast, and smooth, and all-around wonderful, and the Oxygen GVX1 board delivers terrific graphics to the 21″ ViewSonic PT 813 monitor at any resolution you want. It’s all great, and I love it.

We’re pretty certain that when Compaq originally installed Windows NT4 on Regina, it set some registry key that explicitly prevents Windows 2000 from moving the profiles to Documents and Settings. I expect I could fix it by mucking around in the registry, but why bother? I can live without a Documents and Settings folder: everything seems to work, and since I save everything on the server, it doesn’t really matter where things get put locally. For large organizations with strict policies regarding such things, however, this behavior may make a difference in your pre-upgrade planning, so it’s good that we encountered the issue here. After all, I do these silly things so you don’t have to.