From train times and directory enquiries to credit checking and EC law - PC users can have all this all this at their fingertips. Once expensive and difficult to use, on-line services are now affordable and user-friendly.
When the sun shines, people in Bolton tend to buy cream cakes, but on chilly days nothing sells like hot pies. This knowledge is of great value to the town's Green Halgh's Craft Bakery, but rather than lounge around with their heads out of the window, the company's managers are using a dial-up computer database to gain accurate and up-to-date forecasts on a desktop PC.
The service, known as Tel-Me, is proving invaluable in helping the bakery to anticipate demand and ensure that retail outlets are stocked with the ideal combination of products each day. Three times a week, mid-morning, the maps for the Bolton area are summoned to the screen, and the forecasts are passed on to the bakery's main customers so that orders can be optimised for likely demand. 'It's not just sales of cakes, pasties, sausage rolls and meat pies that are affected by the weather,' says Green Halgh's Paul Cooper. 'We also find that people buy much more bread when the temperature rises, for sandwiches and picnics.'
On-line information in the form of dial-up computer databases has been around for more than a decade but in the past it was expensive and difficult to use. Now, a wide range of services is being aimed at the general business market, offering everything from train timetables and directory enquiries to credit checking, market research data, and EC legislation. Nor are these restricted to reams of on-screen text; advances in technology have enabled an increasing number of services to offer colour graphics and some even provide full-motion video.
On-line services are catching on fast among business users who are attracted by rapid access to accurate information at a relatively low cost. During the past couple of years, their enthusiasm has been further fuelled by the falling cost of PCs and increasing use of desktop machines for communicating with the rest of the commercial world.
The European market for on-line services is currently around £1.2 billion and growing at approximately 20% per year, says John Matthews, principal consultant at Ovum, the market research company. 'Some parts of the market are in decline, such as the Prestel service used by travel agents,' he says. But general business information on-line is booming. 'The market is widening dramatically - on-line access is becoming a standard tool for management research and anyone involved in secondary analysis.'
At Green Halgh's, it isn't just the weather maps that are being pulled down the line. Tel-Me also offers phone numbers, train timetables, news, company data, traffic information, and lists of hotels. Cooper uses it to check out the credit status of suppliers that want to be paid in advance. 'It guides us as to whether companies are the sort that we want to be dealing with,' he says.
The system is also ideal for strategic planning tasks such as selecting locations for new bakeries or suitable routes for delivery runs. 'At the press of a few buttons, we can find out the number of existing bakeries in a target area, or how many potential outlets such as cafes, pubs, confectioners and bakers shops there are along a proposed route.'
Part of the appeal of on-line systems is direct access to information for which you previously had to go through an intermediary. Margaret Liposits, a researcher at Ernst & Young in Manchester, is evaluating Tel-Me.'It's quite a painful experience trying to get times out of BR,' she explains, 'whereas if you tell this system you want to travel to London at around 4 pm, it will give you three trains with routes, prices, timetable changes, and information about whether there's a buffet car or if seats can be booked.'
John Regan, research administrator at Firsteel, a steel stockholding company in Walsall, has found on-line access to directory enquiries invaluable, particularly for locating ex-employees with company pensions who have moved without forwarding their addresses. 'In the past I've spent ages on the phone trying to track people down,' he says. 'The advantage of the on-line service is that it lets you try several different permutations of the address, and can give you a dozen possibilities for a target area.' Tel-Me, for example, provides full addresses with post-codes; at 12p a go, it is considerably cheaper than phoning BT. However, users should bear in mind the subscription charges for such services - Tel-Me costs from £40 to £300 a year depending on the number of users.
One of the problems with early on-line services was that they were extremely difficult to use. Services such as FT Profile and Datastar Dialog required users to learn complex command languages based on Boolean logic. They were certainly no use to self-confessed technophobe Dan Wagner in the early '80s when, as a young advertising executive, he had to prepare a campaign on local area networks. He was shocked to find how hard it was to get the information he needed. But he turned the experience to his own advantage by setting up MAID (Market Analysis and Information Database) aimed at providing a user-friendly research facility for a wide range of business users.
MAID offers vast seas of easy-to-navigate financial and corporate information based on 50,000 market reports, 4,000 news publications, and a database of 4.5million companies around the world. 'It's an essential research tool in our organisation' says Sue Edgar of Booz Allen & Hamilton. 'Also, it avoids filling up the shelves with reports that might cost £1,000 and from which people might only need a few tables.' The only problem with MAID is that it costs £5,950 a year to subscribe.
A cheaper alternative for some categories of data is to buy it on a compact disc that stores text, graphics and images in addition to sound - a CD-ROM (Read Only Memory). For business users CD-ROMs offer an ideal way to access archive information such as parliamentary legislation or legal cases. All you need is a CD-drive in your PC. It can be built-in or bolted on as an optional extra for around £300. Many publishers of CD-ROMs, such as London-based Context, issue quarterly discs and offer a complementary dial-up service for more recent items.
Vehicle glass specialist Autoglass uses Context's disc of industrial legal cases to minimise the cost of tribunals. The disc helps identify barristers with the most appropriate experience, and provides a myriad of previous, similar cases that can help prevent going to court. 'When a member of staff is appealing to tribunal, we obviously have to prepare our own strategy carefully,' says Robert Bass, director of legal services. 'Relevant case or tribunal judgments are an essential piece of research.' In a recent case involving an Autoglass manager who had been disciplined, Bass found 15 similar cases on the Context disc. Most of these had resulted in victory for the employee. However, the one that most closely resembled the Autoglass case had resulted in the employer's favour. Bass sent it off to the employee's legal adviser. It did the trick and the employee settled out of court.
At the Corporation of London, Context's parliamentary database has been deployed to plan lobbying activities and spot MPs who are particularly interested in or influential on a given subject. The Corporation recently exploited the database in its opposition to changes in the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill that would have affected the ancient rights of markets such as Billingsgate, Smithfields and Spitalfields. 'We argued for and obtained amendments using Context's database as our information resource, especially the daily updates,' says Jackie Doyle-Price, the Corporation's parliamentary clerk. 'The proposals were eventually dropped altogether.'
Another cheaper way of accessing on-line information is via the expanding data highways of the Internet, the global computer network which is now thought to have up to 30 million users. Around 28% of UK companies are connected to the Internet, according to Peter Dawe, of Cambridge-based Pipex, which helps information pro-viders deliver their services via the network. Quite a lot of the information on the Internet is free and is especially good on topics such as science and technology. It is also used by companies as a medium for advertising and promotion. When Ernst & Young put its budget commentary on the Internet last November, some 4,500 people dialled it in the first two weeks. Ernst & Young gained no direct revenue from the exercise. 'But it did highlight a number of potentially highly desirable customers so we considered it a successful exercise,' says Mike Murphy, senior manager in the systems department.
Business users are rapidly learning to exploit the potential of the Internet as a means of getting and distributing information. Pizza Hut is using it to take orders, while companies such as Borland and Oracle are delivering new releases of software via the network. EuroDollar, the UK-based car and van rental company, is about to put rental charges and details of its European fleet of vehicles, on to Internet. 'A customer could dial in and ask whether we had any Japanese sports cars or download a map of how to find our nearest branch,' says Paul Deacon, project leader of the company's open systems group. 'The customer could then ask how much it would cost to take the car from, say, Birmingham to Southampton to catch a ferry, or whether it would be better to pick one up the other side.'
Although Internet may be relatively inexpensive, you still need software to access and scan the databases, and you can rapidly run up large phone-bills in the process. To minimise costs, some services provide software that allows files to be copied down in chunks to your PC and the system then switched to local processing to search for and retrieve the precise information required. Once you've downloaded a list of convenient hotels, for example, you can then scan through to find out which ones offer covered parking and a vegetarian menu.
But the biggest problem for on-line users is that of information overload. As services proliferate, the task of deciding where to go for information becomes increasingly difficult. 'What most business people want is information about companies and markets along with news about what their competitors and key personnel in their industries are doing,' says Wagner. 'They want to be informed if a rival launches a new product, but they don't want to do their own research, they're too busy.' His solution is a new version of MAID, to be launched this month, that routinely scans updates of its database for specific items or topics of interest to the user. The software asks users what they are interested in and how often they want to be updated. Typically it will call up the MAID databases for a few seconds each night, and deliver the relevant items to the user's desktop each morning. An ice-cream manufacturer, for example, could request market research on frozen yoghurt sales, or a packaging company could scan for news of new biodegradable materials. Dubbed Profound, the service costs £15 per month, making it much more affordable than previous MAID offerings.
As an increasing number of businesses begin to use such services, the crucial advantage is not so much in access to information but how creatively you use it. The possibilities are limitless, as Green Halgh's has found out. Its outlook should be bright, whatever the weather.