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A FEATURED ARTICLE FROM

AUGUST 2002

Digital Explorations
The Computer is a Tool

By John Lamade

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 jobs?

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);
• Inventory control;
• 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 this?

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 as Autopia

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 jlamade@msn.com.

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 jlamade@msn.com.

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