Equipment requirements in the Virtual Office

Local Control

Equipment needs in the virtual office are different than those of a physical office. The biggest difference is one of control; the virtual office worker must be more familiar with the machinery and its maintenance because there is no helpful IS department person who can drop by to fix anything that goes wrong.

This can be a blessing rather than a curse. The worker learns more about proper use of the machine this way, and can get more out of it with that extra knowledge. Also, not all IS people know what they are doing, so by doing it oneself one can be sure what has happened under the hood.

However, there's no way around the fact that this is sort of like saying that we should all maintain our own automobiles rather than taking them to the shop; given the choice we'd probably end up going to the shop for the big jobs. So, the virtual office worker has to be more like the old-time automobile owner, who had to learn maintenance him/herself because there was no other option.

All in all, the best approach is to learn what one has to, and to at the same time take whatever steps are available to reduce what one has to learn.

What Equipment?

The virtual office worker needs at a minimum (this is from an IBM-compatible point of view): Depending on one's particular circumstances, the following items might be helpful:


The following is changing again. Although ISDN is more available than it used to be, a far superior solution is cable modem, or DSL, if it's available in your area. Cable modem is not only much much faster, but perhaps more importantly, your computer can be a web server as well as an internet client.

An interesting point in the above is that a special phone line (such as ISDN) is not recommended. This is because ISDN is a big hassle to install (taking months in some cases, with hours of back-and-forth calls with the phone company to iron out compatibility problems), and because ISDN provides little real benefit.

Why is ISDN ineffective despite its 4x faster theoretical speeds? For several reasons. First, one must be careful to get set up with 2 B channels plus compression. 2 B channels costs more, sometimes twice as much as one B channel. On uncompressed files, a 28.8 modem with compression performs the same as a 2 B channel ISDN line with no compression. But in many cases ISDN+compression is not available from the ISP.

Assuming you pay the price and fight through the technical details, you'll have a truly 4x faster connection to the net. Now you'd expect to reap the rewards of that faster system. But it ain't so. For the most common net use, Web browsing, throughput (which is where ISDN is up to 4x faster) doesn't matter; response time does. This is because one spends most of one's time reading what's on the screen, then suddenly accessing small fragments of text or graphics at another site, and then reading some more. All that fancy ISDN bandwidth is wasted for normal browsing.

But say you're wanting to speed up that once-per-month case where you download a new copy of Netscape, 4 meg of stuff. This can take 20 minutes by modem, and theoretically only 5 minutes by ISDN. That's a clear 15 minutes savings, right? Unfortunately, no. The problem is the net itself; just because your connection to your ISP is faster doesn't mean that the 20 hops between you and the final site (Netscape in this case) are all running at peak speed. And the target site may not provide the data at a rate faster than a 28.8 modem can read anyway. In fact, the Netscape servers are usually accessed in bursts, when new releases come out, and in such circumstances can often provide a download not much faster than a 14.4 modem can handle, much less an ISDN! So both the 28.8 and the ISDN download such large files in about the same amount of time, about 30 minutes.

Even when you get a great ISP, access a nearby site and the net is working at bit-blazing speeds, how much are you really saving? That 15 minutes difference quoted above doesn't keep you from working for 15 minutes; modern web browsers handle such downloads in the background, while you're working on other things. So you start the download and forget about it, while doing other work or even browsing other places on the web. The difference between 5 minutes and 20 minutes in such conditions is perceptually zero, because it's too long to sit around waiting for, but both are fast enough that they're done before you know it if you do another task in the meantime.

Given all those factors, it'd take about 50 years of improved ISDN speeds to pay you back for all the time and hassle that ISDN installation costs you. Just say no. Maybe in a year or two net performance will be up, ISPs will provide really good ISDN connections, and the phone company will do a better job with installations. But I'd expect that by then we'll all be looking to ADSL and cable modems for much higher rates. In any case, in the typical virtual workplace, ISDN is not worth the trouble.

Choosing an ISP

Internet Service Providers often provide flaky service. In seeking the one that's right for you, only two factors matter: ISP downtime, and price. Prices are usually competitive, around $20/month for essentially unlimited access. So the ISP downtime is the issue that should most concern you. Ask each provider how often they're down (they'll usually frankly admit their performance figures, however poor they are, even while touting how great they are!). Ask other people in your area how their experience has been.

The most common reasons for ISP downtime are: the modem pool is too small so you get a busy signal when you dial in; the provider's connection to the net goes down; or the provider has a hardware failure or a poorly scheduled hardware maintenance downtime cycle. You're looking for an ISP which rarely reaches 100% modem pool use (they'll know how often this happens to them); has multiple connections to the net through different connection points (this is rare but should become more common as the net becomes more popular); and has a good history with respect to hardware problems.

Once you're connected to the net, your ISP much have enough bandwidth to the net to avoid being the bottleneck for your communications. Most have a single T1, which is not much of a connection (10 modem users going full bore could tie a T1 up). A T3 is much larger and should be completely sufficient. Fractional T1s are insufficient for any but the tiniest ISPs.

Big Monitors

On today's machines, which have plenty of speed and storage, the most-often unexploited area for productivity improvement is monitor size. Unless office space dictates otherwise, the bigger the monitor (and the concomitant increase in the number of pixels visible at one time), the more productive one will be. It's hard to describe the improvement in smoothness of thought flow when one no longer needs to shuffle windows around to find what one is looking for, but I can assure you it's significant.

Modern video cards like the Matrox Millenium can handle 1600x1200 resolutions at high refresh rates, at a cost of only a few hundred dollars. The expense is in the 21" monitor to display those pixels at that high refresh rate. Such monitors range from $1200 to $2500. But once the CPU is fast enough (P166MMX is fine), the RAM big enough (32meg is enough), and the disk large enough (3G is sufficient for most people), any further dollars should go into such a monitor.

An alternative solution is to get two smaller (17", or even 15") monitors, running each from a separate video card or from a dual-video card, at a lower resolution like 1280x1024 or even 1024x768. Dual monitors is a capability of newer Windows, and dual-video cards exist that even work under Windows 95.

This would seem to give more pixels than would one big monitor, at a lower total price. However, two little monitors do not one big monitor make, as they can't act as a single wide screen for visually complex applications, and they can't act as a single tall screen for showing full pages of text. So in the end I'd still recommend a single 21". Or even better, two 21" monitors!

Substantive changes:
    1996-03-25: created.
    1996-04-19: only 1.6G? Two 17" not so good after all.
    1998-01-07: 3G, P166MMX minimum, cable modem.
    2002-03-30: disk unspecified, midrange CPU, no modem.
Copyright © 1996-2002, Steve Colwell, All Rights Reserved
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