Mara Gulens
April 18

Call me anytime
The Globe and Mail

Suneet Singh Tuli has three business cards. The e-mail and Montreal street address is identical on all of them, as is his title chief executive officer of DataWind Inc.

But the phone numbers are specific to the place he's doing business. If you happen to meet up with Tuli in Spain, you'll be provided with a phone number in Barcelona. If you're hobnobbing at a conference somewhere in the U.S., you'll be able to connect with him through a local area code there, too.

"We use virtual numbers to give our customers in the U.S. and Europe a sense of comfort that we're local," Tuli says.

Impressing customers with this sort of contact-customization would have been prohibitively expensive until recently, but it has been made cheap and easy by Internet-based communications. Through Vonage's voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) system, Tuli is able to forward calls from anywhere in the world to his main number in Montreal and, conversely, have those calls forwarded to wherever he happens to be as long as there's an Internet connection nearby. This means a considerable cost savings. Tuli's long-distance phone bills have dropped to $300 a month from about $1,200 a month, he says, not to mention the fact that it has given him a new way of doing business.

"When you travel to a trade show, you don't have the convenience of an office with you," he says, "[But] we can manage a lot of how the system works off the Web."

The Internet has radically altered the way people are able to work, most importantly, by allowing individuals like Tuli to do business on the road as effectively as they could from their headquarters. New Web-based applications give roving workers instant access to the same communications and office resources that used to be available only at the office desktop.

Those applications are available wherever there's Internet access, and, these days, that's almost anywhere. Wireless Internet connections have expanded beyond the limits of libraries, cafés, airports and hotels; they now cover everything from harbours to aircraft to rail travel. For example, Via Rail, in a first for North America, introduced wireless Internet access on board its trains. There are also new high-speed cellular wireless networks, which allow for BlackBerry and cellphone data connectivity that's up to 10 times what was available previously.

"There was this perception that you had to go into the office to do heavy-duty work, but now you can do it no matter where you are," explains Carmi Levy, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont. "Geography is no longer a limitation......Where you work is less important than how you can be reached."

According to Levy, the key factors driving this change are increasing bandwidth, widespread wireless connectivity, better and richer software applications, changing demographics, globalization of business, and shortened business cycles that require faster reaction time. As a result an increasing number of companies around the world are working remotely.

"You have entrepreneurs who are selling on-line from a beach in Cancun," Levy says. "There is this release from the shackles of the office."

"You would be hard pressed to find a business that is growing that doesn't require some kind of Web-based management," adds Colin Smith, spokesman for WebEx Communications Inc., which bills itself as a worldwide leader in on-line meeting applications. Developing a business requires a lot of time and a pace that forces people to do some remote management, Smith says. "Any business that is growing is going to experience some web management application."

For Ingrida Zemitis, co-owner of Treasure Island Toys and Turtle Pond Toys in southern Ontario, this has meant transferring her experience managing toy shops locally to being able to do it across the pond, while on vacation in Europe. Besides using e-mail and a cellphone to communicate, Zemitis uses and pcAnywhere software to connect to the computer in her home office and the computers in various stores while travelling.

"I could work at the office computer and the store computer at the same time," Zemitis says. "Sometimes I'd be getting sales figures off the store system, and had a spreadsheet on the office computer." On her European trip, Zemitis was able to track sales and approve purchase orders, something that in large part she already does remotely on any given day.

"What I was able to do was not really that much different from what I do from my office computer," she says, except that she gave a neighbour across the street a key to her house in case the computer went down. Although many business owners turn to the Web to simplify problems, being on the Web is often all it takes to make a business more global.

"It's a one-way trip," Levy says. "Once you invest in this technology it's hard to go back."

Indeed, companies that use Web-based solutions tend to think more globally.

"If you use web meetings and have remote document storage, suddenly it's very simple for you to start doing business with someone who is in Vancouver," Smith says, "because Toronto to Vancouver is as easy as Toronto to Buffalo."

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