High-Tech Productivity

Boost Business with These Electronic Essentials.

Despite ongoing laments about the speed at which everyone must adapt to continually evolving high-technology tools, the fact remains that those who refuse to keep abreast of new technology appear destined to be dusted by it.

Indeed, for commercial real estate professionals willing to endure the sometimes frustrating learning curve associated with some new technologies, the payoff can be substantial. Progressive brokers willing to migrate from film to digital cameras, for example, report that brochures and presentations that used to take a few days to put together now take a few hours—or even minutes. Others willing to master palmtop PCs, which for some truly have evolved into an "office-to-go," declare that they simply would be lost without a piece of technology that a few years ago virtually was nonexistent.

The trick, of course, is to embrace new productivity tools without becoming beguiled by them. Indeed, the latest, greatest gadget has no value if its learning curve is prohibitive. And the Internet quickly can become a liability if its actual use grows more akin to a day at the beach. "Those of us that get too hung up with these toys usually do not score in the sales area," says Rick DeKam, CCIM, co-owner of Kalamazoo, Michigan-based Midwest Realty Group.

With that caveat, take a look at a sampling of high-tech productivity tools that can enhance brokers’ typical workdays. They include products for people with different levels of technology experience and offer some picks recommended by PC Magazine, a leading industry publication, as well as firsthand observations from users on what works, what doesn’t, and why. The listings aren’t meant to be all-inclusive—or an endorsement—but to show the types of tools that are available. Do your homework to find your own favorites among the many offerings available in the marketplace. Note that many manufacturers offer various models of the types of products mentioned and frequently introduce new or updated models.

Digital Cameras
Hordes of brokers are scooping up the latest in digital cameras so they can produce instant, on-the-spot images.

"With the digital process, there is no trip to the photo store, waiting for the prints, returning to the photo shop for pick-up, then coming back to the office to scan in photos," says Robin L. Webb, CCIM, who is commercial director of Winter Park-based Prudential Florida Realty. "I simply remove the disk from my camera and use the images in the desired application instantaneously."

Webb uses the Sony Mavica MVC-FD7. "One of the primary reasons I chose the Mavica is its ability to produce directly onto a 3.5-inch disk. There is no tethering the camera to my computer, no cable to tangle, break, or lose." The Mavica also has a zoom lens and software that transforms an image into a pen-and-ink drawing, oil painting, or similar artistic medium.

Of course, purists assert that digital images taken by units in the Mavica’s price range ($700) are not as fine as those captured on film. And some users, including Walter H. Ketchings, CCIM, part owner of Coldwell Banker Alfonso Realty in Gulfport, Mississippi, wish the cameras would produce images just a bit faster.

Other popular digital camera models include Kodak’s DS DC120 Zoom ($599) and Canon’s PowerShot A5 ($699). A key advantage of Kodak’s camera is that its flash can illuminate up to 14 feet. A disadvantage is that the camera stores images in Kodak’s proprietary ".kdc" format, requiring conversion for use in non-Kodak software programs. Known for color accuracy, the PowerShot A5 is compact at eight ounces and can create panoramic images.

Palmtop PCs
While many people still are grateful to PC makers for shrinking units to laptop size, many mobile professionals will not settle for anything less than a palmtop model. "I now have my entire Act! database and schedule with me wherever I am," says Scott C. Goodman, CCIM, president of Atlanta-based Collins/Goodman Development, and an enthusiastic user. "I am completely portable and do not have to carry a notebook computer with me. I love it and am lost without my Palm Pilot."

Clearly the market leader, 3Com’s Palm III ($399) and other models currently enjoy an almost cult-like following. Specifically, Palm III fans love the unit’s ability to share records and applications wirelessly with other users by simply "beaming" information to a second unit through an infrared port. The product packs 2 megabytes (MB) of RAM and can synchronize data over corporate intranets and the Internet. Users also can retrieve and respond to e-mail with the deluxe unit. The latest generation comes bundled with a bonus CD-ROM of third-party applications and utilities software from MacMillan Digital Publishing that the manufacturer values at $175.

Generally, the drawback to palmtop PCs (which retail for roughly $400 to $500) is the keyboard. Great for dashing off short messages, the small keyboard really is not designed to handle lengthy input. Plus, some users—like Goodman—also have had trouble learning how to synchronize data on palmtop PCs with contact management programs.

But for those who can overlook those difficulties, palmtop PCs can make computing eminently convenient. Other popular models include Philips’ Nino 300 ($399-$499) and Casio’s Cassiopeia E-10 ($499.95). One of the primary advantages the Nino 300 has over the Palm III is RAM—the base model comes with 4 MB RAM, the deluxe with 8 MB. Moreover, Nino 300 also offers a handwriting recognition program that can anticipate the writer’s words.

Casio’s Cassiopeia E-10 also offers 4 MB RAM and handwriting processing that converts writing to Microsoft Word 97. Cassiopeia comes equipped with a voice recorder, which marks each recording with a date and time. An earphone jack also lets users listen to voice notes privately.

Writable/Rewritable CDs
While digital photos and large databases have been a boon to brokers, finding space to store all those graphics has become increasingly vexing. In addition to Zip drives and tape storage systems, for about $350 to $500 it’s possible to "burn in" and store images on writable and rewritable CDs. Moreover, putting brochure and property information on writable CDs also can help brokers better market their properties.

"The writable CD is great in that we can keep a library of pictures on all office buildings, retail centers, apartments, etc.," says Ernest Brown IV, CCIM, vice president of the investment services group at Grubb & Ellis Company in San Antonio. "They can also be used to show past property condition."

One drawback with this technology is that the lower-end CD-R (compact disc-recordable) units only can make one recording on each CD. "The writable CD-ROM is a one-way tool," Brown says. "You can save onto it, but the information is then only retrievable." The information cannot be manipulated and resaved on the same disc. Higher-end CD-RW (compact disc-rewritable) units use CDs that can be erased and reused.

Another caution with this technology is that units that must be connected to a PC’s parallel port will lose some speed as a result of that connection. In addition, verify with salespeople that the unit has the ability to alert you if the image you are trying to record is too large for the CD. Otherwise, the unit may spend an hour or more burning in images, only to alert you later that your CD has insufficient disk space—and you will need to start the recording from scratch with a new CD.

Another solution to insufficient disk space might be to wait for the next generation of storage—rewritable digital video disc (DVD). These units will offer 2.6 gigabytes of storage space per disk, or four times the capacity of current CD-Rs and CD-RWs.

For those who’d rather not wait, some popular writable CD models include Smart and Friendly’s CD Speedwriter ($399-499); Hewlett Packard’s SureStore CD-Writer Plus 7200 (about $349-$465); and Philips PCA363RW CD Rewritable ($350).

Smart and Friendly’s offering enables users to record only once; the other two are rewritable. Generally, record-once discs for these machines cost less than $5; discs that can be erased and used again cost between $10 and $20.

Scanners already have won the hearts of many commercial real estate professionals. "Before scanners, I was at the mercy of the secretarial staff to retype important documents," says Robert Mortensen, CCIM, owner of Robert Mortensen & Associates in Miami, Florida. "Now scanners allow me to scramble on the fly and get the work out."

Specifically, Mortensen says he uses his scanner to insert new language quickly into older documents without having to retype them completely. The scanner also comes in handy for adding photos to brochures and presentations he needs to create immediately.

Meanwhile, Jonathan S. Wyner, CCIM, CPM, a realty specialist with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority based in the nation’s capital, adds that his Hewlett-Packard Scan Jet 4100C ($240) has become an irreplaceable tool for inserting photos in memos and sending pictures via e-mail.

"The problem with scanners is they do take time to make the scan," Mortensen says. Plus, documents also need to be proofed and edited after the scanner’s software transforms scanned text into digitized text.

Like other high-tech tools that have been around awhile, entry-level scanner prices have dropped dramatically. Basic scanners now retail for less than $100, although the mid-range models still sell for $200 and up, depending on features.

Besides Mortensen’s and Wyner’s favorite scanners, other popular models include the Microtek Scanmaker V600 ($189); the Pacific Image ScanAce 1230 ($100-$200); and the Umax Astra 1200S ($249).

The Scanmaker’s primary draw is its relatively low price and easy installation. Instead of being forced to pop open a PC’s case, users simply use their parallel port to link the new scanner to their system. Even if a PC has a printer connected to the port, the Scanmaker comes equipped with a pass-through port that can be used to link both the printer and scanner through the same port.

The ScanAce 1230 is another easy installation. As with higher-priced models, it also comes bundled with a number of imaging and graphics programs that offer typical business users a wide array of creative potential.

The Astra 1200S is designed specifically for users who plan to scan a large number of legal-sized documents. Astra 1200S is also one of the first scanners to be Windows 98-ready. A recent market study for PC Data, a high-tech industry research group based in Reston, Virginia, found that the Astra is one of the best-selling flatbed scanners in the United States. Bundled standard with the product is a full version of Adobe PhotoDeluxe, which is not the case with all scanners.

Portable Printers
Despite living in the age of 24-hour quick-print shops, there is a definite advantage to being able to print a professional-looking contract, brochure, or letter in a hotel room at 3 a.m.

For brokers who have found themselves in this situation more times than they care to remember, Hewlett-Packard has developed a portable printer—the HP DeskJet 340CBi ($365) that needs no cable to print documents from a laptop. Instead, it can print any document generated by any notebook PC with an infrared port.

Before selecting a portable printer, consider print quality, printer size, and essential peripheral components. Before purchasing a unit, test your portable printer at the store with the laptop you’ll be using. This will ensure that the two units are compatible and that the print quality is satisfactory to you.

Also be sure to talk with the sales representative about peripheral components needed to run the printer, such as laptop cables, rechargeable batteries, and ink cartridges. You’ll only know the true cost of your portable printer after factoring in these components.

Meanwhile, users concerned about size and weight should know that thermal printers, in general, weigh about a third less than inkjet portables. Also remember that automatic paper feeders, which may be essential for multipage print jobs, will add size and bulk to your portable printing solution.

Other units to consider include the Citizen PN 60i ($399), the Olivetti JP 90 ($295), and the Pentax Technologies PocketJet II ($269). All are capable of printing on paper and transparencies. The PN 60i also prints letter, legal, and number 10 envelopes in 360-by-360 dots per inch (dpi) at a speed of two pages per minute and features friction feed. The JP 90 prints letter, legal, and A4 and has an automatic sheet feeder. It prints 300-by-600 dpi in black and 300-by-300 dpi in color at three pages-per-minute. Finally, the PocketJet II prints on thermal paper, has an automatic sheet or roll feeder option, and prints at 300-by-300 dpi at up to three pages per minute.

Robert A. Rosenberg, CCIM, president of Investnet, Inc., in Sacramento, California, says he prefers laser to inkjet printers for the higher quality printout that a laser can generate. "There’s no learning curve at all on the product, and HP is known for making good machines," he says. He subcontracts more complicated work to third parties.

Meanwhile, Ralph D. Spencer, CCIM, SIOR, of Richmond, Virginia-based Harrison & Bates, prefers to work with a color printer. "By using a color printer, I can create high-quality proposals that really get the attention of the addressee."

High-Speed Modems
Many Internet users experience two reactions: One, it’s wonderful, and two, why can’t pages load any faster? Fortunately, there is a way back to wonderful.

Specifically, a number of manufacturers, telecommunications companies, and cable companies are responding to the clamor for high-speed Internet connections with hardware and line connections that make the typical 28.8K modem seem prehistoric.

Unfortunately, the drawback is that speed gets pricey very quickly. Currently, a T-1 line from a telecommunications company—approximately 100 times faster than a 28.8K modem—generally can cost more than $1,000 just to install, and hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars each month, depending on usage.

More realistic for all but rabid Internet users are asymmetrical digital subscriber line (ADSL) service and integrated services digital network (ISDN) lines, both telecommunications company-generated. ADSL lines can be 50 or more times faster than a 28.8K modem; ISDN lines are nearly four times faster, at 128K. Both are dedicated-line services, enabling subscribers to stay connected to the Net 24 hours a day if necessary.

The promise of ADSL has been made to everyday Internet users for years now, but at least one company—Dallas-based GTE—appears ready to begin making good on those promises. The company has begun offering the high-speed service in trial locations around the country for businesses and consumers. Users of the premium-grade ADSL will be able to download data at 1.5 MB per second, which is about 52 times faster than a 28.8K modem, according to GTE.

Not surprisingly, prices are all over the map for each service. Generally expect to pay $60 or more for line installation, and a $30 to $250 monthly fee for service, depending on speed.

"We use a dedicated ISDN line into our office for full-time Internet service routed to each desktop," DeKam says. "It keeps all of us current with our e-mail and other communication needs right to the minute."

Matt Hawkins, CCIM, owner of Hawkins & Associates in Spokane, Washington, also is an ISDN fan. "It makes doing absolutely anything much faster, he says. He uses an ISDN 128K modem, and overall, is extremely satisfied with the technology. "All I could possibly ask for is broader, nonstandard operating system support," he says. "Not all of us run Microsoft products on production equipment."

While brokers may have better luck with high-speed Internet access from their local cable company, one sure way to beat high prices is to check out multiline modems. Priced at $150 to $800, these modems enable users to connect two or more standard phone lines simultaneously to the Net and double, even triple speeds accordingly.

Two options are Diamond Multimedia’s dual-line Supra Sonic II ($149.95) and 3Com’s OfficeConnect Remote Dual Analog Access Router ($745). Both manufacturers are considered premiere modem makers.

One caution: Check with your Internet service provider before committing to a multiline modem. Currently, not all modems are supported by all Internet service providers.

Joe Dysart

Joe Dysart is a freelance writer based in Thousand Oaks, California.Shopping List for Technology ToolsThis sampling of products offers examples of many types of high-tech tools of interest to commercial real estate professionals. However, companies frequently introduce new models and products, so visit the company Web sites or call them to get complete, up-to-date product and price information. Many of the following prices are suggested list and actual retail prices may vary.Digital Cameras Canon PowerShot A5: $699(800) 848-4123 DS DC120 Zoom: $599(888) 375-6325 Mavica MVC-FD7: $700(800) 222-7669 PCs Casio Cassiopeia E-10: $499.95(800) 204-7765 Nino 300: $399-$499(888) 275-8356 Palm Pilot III: $399(650) 237-6000 CDs Hewlett-Packard SureStore CD-Writer Plus 7200: $349-$465(800) 810-0134 PCA363RW CD Rewritable: $350(888) 239-6948 and Friendly CD Speedwriter: $399-$499(800) 959-7001 Hewlett-Packard Scan Jet 4100C: $240(800) 752-0900 Microtek Scanmaker V600: $189(800) 654-4160 Image ScanAce 1230: $100-$200(800) 909-9996 Umax Astra 1200S: $249(800) 562-0311 Printers Citizen PN 60i: $399(310) 643-9825 DeskJet 340CBi: $365(800) 752-0900 JP 90: $295(800) 582-3799 Technologies PocketJet II: $269(800) 543-6144 Modems Diamond Multimedia Supra Sonic II: $149.95(800) 468-5846 OfficeConnect Remote Dual Analog Access Router: $745(800) 638-3266