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A robot in your future

McNamara archive

Sprint's Frank Denap will look you in the eye and insist his company's Digitally Enhanced Network Appliance Project is going to rewrite the conventions of telecommuting.

So what, you say? Aren't vendors always touting the revolutionary powers of their creations?

Well, Denap is talking about a robot - a droid, by his description. Think R2-D2 or that whiney bucket of bolts that tormented Dr. Smith on "Lost in Space." The three of us - Denap, Buzz and a crude prototype of the droid - spoke last week on the show floor at NetWorld+Interop 2001.

Denap sounds like a level-headed, well-informed earthling when he talks about the "isolating" effects of working from home and how they can make the growing practice unrewarding - if not untenable - for telecommuter and employer. The problem is real, all right.

"We want to put more reality into the virtual world," Denap says.

But robots? . . . Why don't we just have Scotty beam our teleworkers into the office for a dose of human bonding every now and then?

Denap knows people are looking at him like he has two heads, but he remains undeterred.

His droids - wireless videoconferencing units on wheels - will not sit at the sides of their teleworker partners, but rather represent them back at the office; robotic surrogates, if you will. Should the human half need to chat with the boss or a cubicle-bound co-worker, he will eschew the stifling options of telephone and e-mail in favor of asking his droid to wheel over to the target. A real-time video chat ensues.

Unless the droid first happens to encounter a familiar face in the hallway - human or otherwise - in which case it/they will commence kibitzing. Already our teleworker is happier because he's able to waste time gabbing at the water cooler just like his colleagues who commute by car.

You can have fun thinking about this concept even if you believe it's nuttier than a UFO convention. Just don't get your heart set on being issued a droid any time soon.

You'll have to wait a few years for Sprint to bring them to market.

Then you'll have to wait a few more for your boss to take leave of his senses.

With so much convention talk centering on the drive to get more Internet users devoting more time and more money to ever-richer Web applications, there was an irony in the unapologetic presence of a class of vendor some might see as the movement's antithesis. The makers of Web use monitoring and filtering tools were well represented, if not exactly in tune with the show's guiding theme of more is better.

With cutesy-pie names such as St. Bernard Software, Webwasher. com and 8e6 Technologies, they're all selling the same commodity: fear . . . fear that your employees are ripping off the company by surfing when they should be working, and fear that "inappropriate use" will somehow get the company sued.

What party poopers.

You may have read his reviews in Network World, but you haven't seen anything until you've seen Joel Snyder live and in concert.

Imagine if Robin Williams was an expert on the inner workings of VPNs: That's what you get from Snyder as he headlines VPN Day at N+I.

You get manic, nonstop, rapid-fire, arms-akimbo stomping back and forth. You get expertise, yes, but more important, you get uncommon candor. Witness: "As much as I respect the largest software company in the world, I think their whole L2TP [standard] thing is really stupid," and, "Most ISPs are morons."

By the afternoon session, Snyder had an auditorium full of hard-core network professionals chanting the last one on cue.

Every Vegas show should be this entertaining.

Candor is always welcome here. The address is buzz@nww.com.

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