Killer app revealed

'I think I'd like to telecommute,' my 17-year-old daughter, Katy, told me last week. At first I laughed. 'What are you talking about? You've got a summer job!'

          "I think I'd like to telecommute," my 17-year-old daughter, Katy, told me last week. At first I laughed. "What are you talking about? You've got a summer job!"

          She looked at me blankly. "What's that got to do with it?"

          Now, Katy has an unusually cool summer job for a high school kid, working as a neophyte programmer at an astrophysics lab, evaluating satellite image data. (I credit her ubergeek father's end of the gene pool here.) But she finds the 90-minute round trip by train into Cambridge, Massachusetts, every day a bit tedious. She knows programmers can work from home. Why not her, too?

          That's when it hit me. The "killer app" that everyone hopes will appear on the horizon to rescue the flailing tech industry is here already, catching hold everywhere. It isn't an application at all. It's a behaviour change. It's a work/life balance expectation. It's telecommuting.

          Go ahead, scoff. But the assistant secretary for the US Department of Commerce thinks so, too. We quoted Bruce Mehlman in one of our stories a couple of months ago, asserting that broadband usage will eventually "define the global winners and losers in the 21st century."

          Telecommuting, he added, "is really the killer app right now . . . for home broadband use."

          Unfortunately, we're mostly still holding our breath on broadband, which can supposedly reach 90% of the US population but is actually used by only 12% of households. Still, imagine the potential when broadband use hits the big time. That's when killer apps become obvious -- in hindsight.

          Today there are already nearly 40 million telecommuters (full and part time), and various pundits predict that there will be close to 70 million by 2006. Last year the Telework America Survey found that 72% of telecommuters were reporting increased productivity as a result of working at home, and other studies support that boost. There's even a patriotic flavor to teleworking: The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that for every 10 percent of the workforce that works at home each day, the nation can save 1.2 million gallons of fuel, drive 24.4 fewer miles per person and produce 12,963 fewer tons of pollution.

          But it's the bottom-line gains of telecommuting that make the most compelling argument for many companies. AT&T's annual telework research survey, released in May, showed that the extra hour of productive time spent at home each day -- rather than driving to and from work -- amounted to a $US65 million business benefit for the company annually. Pacific Bell uses a "hotel-style" office in San Ramon, California, where workers telecommute some days and share offices and cubicles on others. The estimated savings: more than $US21 million in the past five years.

          Of course, even a killer app has its limitations.

          A few years ago, my other daughter, Erin, was trying to argue her way out of detention with her high school's dean of discipline. (I swear, that's his real title.) He was sternly informing her that being a few minutes late to school every day was a stumbling block to her future success. "In the real world, you have to be on time for work every day," the dean scolded.

          "Oh, you're so wrong," Erin breezily assured him, having grown up in a household where devotion to telecommuting runs deep. "In the real world, nobody's ever on time! My parents just wander into work whenever they feel like it."

          After a moment of stunned silence, the school official snapped, "Well, I wish I had their jobs!"

          She served the detention.

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