The Computer is a Tool
How many of you have computers in your shops? Hmm, that is quite
a few hands. If you do not have a computer, you probably should.
Everybody writes about computers. It seems that we are surrounded
by computer information. My e-mail inbox is packed with newsletters
and e-mails regarding the latest hardware, software, and how to
use that software. I receive junk mail about home businesses in
which I can "earn" $10,000 a month through the "magic"
of residual income.
And it's all wonderful. There is so much information that I sometimes
forget that the computer is a tool to be used when needed. Yes,
a computer is like an electronic Leatherman; you can do many jobs
with the one tool. But how well does the computer do each of the
JACK OF ALL TRADES - MASTER OF NONE!
This month I want to consider some of the more useful applications
for computers. Along the way, I will also demonstrate that for some
applications computers are less than useful.
Before I start writing about applications, I really ought to mention
hardware. The most important thing to remember about your computer,
monitor, printers, etc. is to select/own equipment that meets both
your current and anticipated needs for the next 12 to 18 months.
Determining your needs is often challenging - especially if you
haven't used a computer before - but for the sake of simplicity,
let's say that you plan to use your computer for the following applications:
Word processing (letters, memos, faxes, etc.);
Bookkeeping (basic accounting and analysis);
Database management (customer information);
Basic graphics for flyers and brochures;
Internet (web and e-mail).
None of these applications are particularly demanding on system
resources. Consequently, you do not need a gigahertz monster machine
or a gaming demon capable of millions of polygons per second at
extremely fine resolutions. Essentially, you need a middle-of-the-road
machine with 128 meg of ram, a 17-inch monitor, and a color-ink
jet printer. (Here is a tip on the color printer. Learn to refill
the ink cartridges yourself. You will save thousands of dollars
over the lifetime of the printer. Three-color cartridges cost about
$50; you can refill the cartridge for less than $2.00. This means
that you can print simple flyers yourself and save.)
While we are considering the basic machine, invest in Windows XP.
You cannot beat Microsoft Office but if you do not want to part
with hundreds of dollars, download or buy a copy of Sun's Star Office,
which is compatible with Microsoft Office. Star Office costs between
$50 and $80 and it includes a word processor, spreadsheet, graphics,
and a database program. You can still download the freeware version
of the program. Freeware, by the way, means that you do not have
to pay for it.
Internet connections are important. Make sure that you have a V.90-compliant
56k modem. Avoid the new V.92 modems with the modem-on-hold feature,
because very few Internet service providers offer this service.
So, save a few dollars.
One question that I have often asked is whether or not to have
a second line for Internet access. The current answer is go cable
or broadband where you are always connected, but this is debatable
because most people really don't need the bandwidth - unless you
regularly download images, huge files, or music. Most businesses
can do quite well with 56k service and a device like the Catch-a-Call
(available at Radio Shack or Tiger Direct for $49.95). The Catch-a-Call
works with call waiting (about $2.50/month from your phone company).
When a call comes in while you are online, it automatically puts
your Internet connection on hold (about 30 seconds and then your
Internet service provider breaks the connection) and lets the incoming
call through. No more missed calls!
You may also want to invest in a scanner. There are many good scanners
available for less than $100. This will give you some flexibility
and let you enter text and images from printed material. Just remember
that when you work with scanned documents, the amount of memory
required is directly proportional to the resolution. For most applications,
you will not require more than 300x300 dpi. Good bets are HP, Epson,
Canon, and UMAX.
Remember I said that the computer is a tool. It will not detail
or wash cars. So, put the electronic bucket away. Sometimes you
really do need to reach for the phonebook rather than spend 20 minutes
playing with the electronic yellow pages. Similarly, picking up
your copy of Auto Laundry News and reading it from cover to cover
makes more sense than looking up specific articles on the web site.
Web sites do not usually have advertisements, and the ads often
have incredibly useful information that can help you, so you really
should not avoid them. (However, if you do want to reread my columns
from past months, by all means go to www.carwashmag.com!)
I guess that the best way to summarize this section, before moving
on, is to find the balance between your needs and interests. Because
the computer is a tool, you are wasting time when the results take
longer to obtain or are difficult to understand. Consider your objectives
and then use the computer as a tool to help you attain them.
AUTO MECHANIKA THE BIG SHOW
Every two years, the Germans put on an incredible car care trade
show. It's called "Automechanika." It will be held in
Frankfurt in mid-September. Manufacturers from around the world
will display a huge variety of products. The show will feature more
than 3,000 exhibitors in multiple buildings with acres of displays.
This is the big kahuna of car-stuff shows. Imagine APAA, SEMA, Car
Care World Expo, NACE, and all related shows being held at one time
and in one place. This will give you an idea about the magnitude
of the show. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of professionals
from around the world make the trip to see what's new.
Since it is mid-August you can check for tickets to Germany and
pack your bags. You'd love the trip. Perhaps, I should have written
about this last month; then you would have had two months to go.
Okay, most of you aren't going, so why am I mentioning a show like
You can attend electronically! (Visit Automechanika at www.automechan
ika.com/de.) As you can imagine, manufacturers invest heavily
in this show. For some, exhibiting at Automechanika is their marketing
program, and the show organizers realize that one small booth can
be overwhelmed by the vast numbers of exhibitors. One of the tools
offered to exhibitors and attendees is called Catpool (catalog pool)
which is an on-line and CD collection of catalogs and web links
to manufacturers. You can gain access to Catpool by going to the
following web site: www.catpool.com.
You work your way through the site by clicking on the categories
and then the subcategories.
One of the features that makes using Catpool so convenient is
the presence of catalogs, contacts, and web links. But why bother?
Well, the answer is that you can learn about new products and techniques
faster and easier then ever before. For example, you may have wanted
to know about Farecla's compounds. Where do you go to find out?
Well, here's the place. Find out about the company that 3M envies
for market share.
WRAPPING IT ALL UP
This month, we considered basic computers, software, and applications.
While all this stuff is cool, I warned that computers are tools
and that they should support your objectives rather than dictate
them. Then, I pointed out a really cool set of sites that are intended
to help you learn what's new.
While these sites are great, I must admit that talking with people
is the best way to learn about products. Going to a trade show is
the best way to compare notes with people. By sharing with others
you gain valuable insights. This is why regularly frequenting discussion
forums is so valuable. I have written about some common sites, such
Carport at www.autopiacarport.com
and the Auto Care Forum at www.autocareforum.com.
These are both good sites for basic information. Using forums to
gather information about problems you are having or to seek information
about products makes them valuable. There are probably many other
forums, but either of these two is a good starting point.
One of the items to be wary of is the promises of some manufacturers
regarding their products. While I
suspect that some contributors are shills for makers or their distributors
and try to sneak ads into the forum (Oh no! Don't say it's so!),
you have to remember to bring your skepticism with you (Okay, I
won't start the creative skepticism stuff, but you have to remember
to temper wishful thinking with experience) or the value of the
site will be minimized. If you regularly read postings on these
sites, you will know what I mean. There is a lot of misinformation
as well as information on these sites. Get ready to sift the nuggets
from the sand.
Somehow I have managed to consume 1,500 words writing this piece.
Hopefully, these thoughts justify the sacrifice of ink and trees.
As I mentioned earlier, dialogues are valuable. The greatest risk
of writing these columns is that they tend to become monologues
(one-way), and I do want feedback. It helps if I know what kinds
of things you find useful. Do e-mail me. I look forward to your
comments. Please note that I now have a new e-mail address. You
can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Lamade has extensive experience
in the marketing of detailing products and is a contributing editor
to Auto Laundry News. Contact John via e-mail at email@example.com.