Self-Service COLD

COLD (computer output to laser disk) technology extends far beyond what its name implies. Companies are now leveraging the Web to allow customers and partners to view invoices, purchase orders, reports, and other information online.

Acronyms are designed to make our life easier. Who wants to say self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, when you can simply say SCUBA? Technology acronyms are a little trickier. A RAID storage system can be a redundant array of independent or inexpensive disks. DVD once meant digital videodisk and then digital versatile disk. In most circles, DVD is no longer an acronym. It's now just a word that refers to that particular optical media.

The acronym COLD (computer output to laser disk) seems to be suffering a similar fate. Originally, COLD technology allowed companies to store large volumes of mainframe data (typically reports) on laser disks. This eliminated the need for costly microfiche and greenbar reports. As a result, cost-justifying a COLD solution was a pretty straightforward process. And, retrieving data from laser disk was much easier than searching through paper and microfiche files.

Technology either evolves or dies. In the case of COLD, the technology evolved. With the advent of client/server technology, COLD applications grew and are now primarily based on a 32-bit architecture. Also, these solutions allow companies to do much more than store data. Users can now access stored reports at the desktop and view only particular parts of the reports. This data can also be linked to documents or scanned images. This allows customer service reps to, for example, access an invoice, purchase order, support documentation, and payment from their desktops.

"COLD was coined because the laser disk was the media of choice back then," says Colin McAllister, president and CEO of Data Trade. "The acronym is now meaningless, but the term still exists. Internally, we refer to ourselves as a digital report management company. That is really more applicable to what we do." McAllister's company is headquartered in Springfield, MO, and was founded in 1990. The privately held company has 28 employees.

Last year, AIIM (Association for Information and Image Management) International modified COLD to COLD/ERM (enterprise report management). "COLD/ERM broadens the definition of where many COLD vendors want to position themselves," comments Larry Dever, vice president of hosting services at PSI Technologies Corporation. "With the decrease in the cost of magnetic storage and the advancement of Web technology, there is so much more that COLD vendors can offer. I don't see many vendors pushing the term COLD. They are using the ‘e' terminology." Based in Austin, TX, PSI Technologies has 85 employees and was founded in 1984.

Pushing Data Out To Customers
Traditional COLD applications were, and still are, based on client/server architecture with all users connected to a LAN (local area network). Because users were LAN-based, all users were company employees. This model is not uncommon in today's market — even though technology has advanced beyond this stage. "The majority of COLD technology implemented by companies today is still based on the client/server model. Even with advancements in the Internet and bandwidth, we are still seeing a hell of a lot of old COLD going in," says McAllister. "However, this doesn't preclude us from positioning our company as to where the market is headed in the future. You have to remember that the market is always ahead of what's actually being delivered at the time."

Like most technologies that manage and distribute information, these solutions are migrating toward the Internet. Intranets and extranets are commonplace in most companies. And, they use a standard browser that allows people to work in a common interface. "A true thin client requires you to use HTML, XML (extensible markup language), or a similar standard. Now, we can deliver COLD data through a standard browser in a standard format," explains McAllister. "Developers like us are able to write better code and have better systems with more functionality. We have better applications today."

PSI Technologies' Dever pointed out one such application where his company is pushing COLD data out to customers via the Internet. His company was integral in developing a system that helps customers and billing institutions manage information for E-ZPass tollbooth usage. Using electronic tags mounted on their cars, E-ZPass customers can flow through tollbooths without fumbling for change. Instead, the toll amount is deducted from a prepaid customer account. "We process this billing information and pass it along to Chase Manhattan, which handles the customer accounts," relays Dever. "We also send out e-mail notifications to customers that let them know their E-ZPass statements are available. Customers just click the supplied link, and they can view their statements."

Docubase Systems (Clearwater, FL), which offers an integrated suite of products that includes COLD, has also seen its customers take advantage of Web technology. For example, one of the company's oldest customers had a pool of 10 customer service reps handling service calls. "Typically, a rep would access an invoice, for instance, and then fax the document to the customer," says Yannick Tabanon, vice president at Docubase Systems. "Now, the reps e-mail invoices or allow customers to view the information from their browsers. The company is saving thousands of dollars."

Moving Beyond Traditional COLD
The E-ZPass application is just one example of how COLD technology has grown beyond simply supplying data to employees on a company network. Advancements in Web technology and bandwidth have expanded the use of COLD technology into customer-centric applications. COLD technology allows companies to store reports and statements in a repository. The next logical step is to provide these statements to online customers.

"We call these self-service applications," states McAllister. "And, electronic bill presentment over the Internet is a big area of growth for COLD technology." McAllister explained that Data Trade is currently wrapping up beta tests with a couple of telecommunications companies. These companies are allowing their customers to not only view bill summaries, but also to mine their statements.

For example, a customer can view only the calls that lasted more than 10 minutes or calls that were made to a specific state. This type of value-add can be critical as telecommunications companies fight ferociously to hang on to and acquire customers. "We are also working with a large trucking company to allow its partners to view delivery and scheduling information online," says McAllister. "This company was spending $30,000 per month in faxing this information to its major partners. Now, it's self-service where suppliers and customers can view the information online."

As customers view their statements online, it reduces the amount of mundane calls that typically flood a company's customer service department. This frees up customer service reps to perform more value-added tasks. If there are questions about statements, however, customers and reps can each view the same electronic statement as they work together to resolve a problem. Of course, reps will also have access to additional information that is restricted to customers.

"It really doesn't matter what vertical you are talking about," says Craig Laue, business development manager at Docubase. "Almost every industry wants to make report information available to its customers. In transportation, you might be talking about bills of lading and proof of delivery. With insurance, you may want your agents to have access to claim information and company policies. The vertical will dictate the type of information. But, every industry's goal is the same."

Ed Hess