Finally, a perfect job for the robots: managing your online work identity. In these troubling economic times, one of the best ways a business owner can cut office costs is to migrate shop to one of the many -- and I mean many -- online business process management tools out there. The major software players such as Microsoft ( MSFT), Google ( GOOG) and Adobe ( ADBE) make such systems. And there are many small ones, too: Zoho.com, ajaxWrite, FlySuite.com, Nevrocode, Peepel.com and theopendoc.com to just name a few. Make no mistake, these tools are powerful. The online software allows employees to collaborate on documents, projects and spreadsheets in real time and harness huge savings -- many of these products are free or have low annual subscription rates. But they all have a serious Achilles heel: managing the online identities you need to use them. No matter which product you choose, accessing it requires online logins and passwords that can become dizzyingly complex. Here in Blum world, we run a completely virtual digital business, and password management is about the biggest headache. My people, and they are a pretty tech-savvy bunch or they couldn't do their jobs, struggle to remember where to go on the Web to find what they need to be working on at a given time. Documents are at Web site X and need password A. Email is at Web site Y, which requires password B. Calendars are at Web site Z ... no wait! Now they are at site Q because we longer use Z and what password is that? So any tool that streamlines all these locations and passwords in a secure Web experience is a product worth consideration.
Over the past month or so my assistant Charlie and I have been testing one such identity management tool, RoboForm from Siber Systems ( www.roboform.com, free to start, $30 for a Pro license). RoboForm is easy to download and install. Both Charlie and I installed the software in less than 10 minutes on several computers. RoboForm takes all of the logins and passwords for all the Web sites you and your employees encounter and places them in a directory that can be centrally managed and protected. There is a lot for the small-business owner to like about RoboForm. Your and your employees' Web identities and business information are stored in an easily accessible file that can be found, backed-up, encrypted or otherwise managed. All of your office passwords can travel between various browsers such as Internet Explorer or Firefox -- though Google's new browser Chrome was not yet supported. Charlie and I both found that getting from, say, my Google start page to my Earthlink work email account was one-button easy. And the software allows for all of your company's important Web access points and passwords to be boiled down to so-called passcards that can be securely emailed to your employees as needed. Also, RoboForm offers an interesting feature called Dual Master Password entry, which lets you control your employees' access to the company Web site -- either behind a firewall or out in the open Web. "The idea is to replace users' multiple passwords with one secure password, the master password," says Bill Carey, vice president of marketing at Siber Systems in Fairfax, Va. "As we all know, users cannot be expected to remember multiple secure passwords, especially if they have to change them every 30 days. So unless they have a tool to help them, they will take shortcuts with their passwords (i.e. write them down, tell a fellow employee, use the same one for everything, etc.), which compromises corporate security. Those that don't take shortcuts will end up calling the help desk for password resets, driving up IT costs and increasing user frustration."
Now the bad news: Despite its obvious upside, RoboForm does have some serious limitations for the smaller enterprise, particularly one with limited IT support and little tech savvy. Siber Systems recently announced an enterprise version, under which the features can be targeted and edited, but we found the process was cumbersome and probably beyond most small businesses. The dual password feature is powerful and secure, but it introduced a complex series of identity-management issues that should give most small businesses pause: Some sort of password accounting system is clearly needed to track the passwords, since the end-user would not know them. So if you lose that password, depending on the situation, you could lose the material stored online. Also, several sites did not work well with RoboForm. Adobe Buzzword, for example, is a Flash-based Web location that would not allow automated forms. And some of the more intricate parts of our online product management software, Basecamp, require multiple log-ins, which confused RoboForm. Finally, the tool sometimes had problems with Web browsers that prefilled passwords on their own. Bottom Line: RoboForm is powerful. It can speed the daily Web work grind. And taking a test drive with the free version makes sense. But it may not be quite the right answer for full identity management for the not-so-tech-savvy small business. A version 7 is due out next year and we will revisit this issue then. Until then, RoboForm is a positive step in keeping your work selves organized and secure. But it is not the final solution.