Everything changes when you trade in your desktop for a laptop, your headset for a handset, your office for a hotel room.
Sometimes for the better: You’re liberated from your cubicle, free to go where your work takes you.
But sometimes everything changes for the worse. Productivity suffers when you’re in an unfamiliar place, using gadgets that just don’t feel right. The way a miniaturised laptop keyboard cramps your hands, or even the sensation of cellular microphone against your collar, is sometimes enough to keep you from getting the job done right.
Here are four tech “must-haves” for the mobile office, plus the latest tools that can boost your productivity while you’re away.
1. The Right Software
It isn’t just downloading the necessary applications onto your laptop or PDA, it’s also knowing whether the programs are suited to a mobile office. Is your e-mail program built for the road or adapted from a bigger application meant for a corporate workgroup? Do the programs play nice together on your laptop or do they freeze when your processor gets busy?
These are considerations office-bound employees don’t usually make, but they can become big issues when you’re travelling. That’s something Tab Stone, a doctor from Los Angeles, knows all too well. He installed a new e-mail program on his laptop before leaving on a recent trip, but it wasn’t suited for mobile use. As it turns out, the application wouldn’t run on his portable. He had to uninstall it shortly before takeoff, but the process disabled his backup e-mail program. That meant he couldn’t download any messages to his PC. “I could not fix whatever was corrupted with either a fresh download or a copy downloaded from the Internet,” Stone recalls.
The latest: Contact-management software programs let you integrate data with your PDA, so you can download and synch contacts, calendar appointments and notes to your Palm Pilot or Pocket PC. There’s also a Web-based version for business travellers who either lose their laptops or prefer to work from a desktop at their destination.
What’s next? Look for even more integration between applications for wireless users. Contact managers are already assuming the role of e-mail program, address book and database. The next step is making it more accessible to people who are using cell phones or wireless PDAs.
2. The Right Hardware
I’m not even talking about owning the newest laptop computer. I’m talking about hardware that’s created for life on the road. Let’s face it: A lot of the gadgets on which mobile professionals depend aren’t made with travellers in mind. For example, when Joachim Martin’s laptop battery ran out on a recent flight, a helpful flight attendant offered to recharge it in a “secret” outlet in the back of the plane. “The batteries charged,” remembers the software developer. “But when I got home, they were dead.” The power source had to be replaced. Blame the airline, the battery manufacturer or even the unfortunate business traveller for not knowing better, but this kind of thing happens often. Phone plugs don’t always fit; neither do power outlets. And a lot of the gadgets we rely on are traveller-hostile, impractical or both.
The latest: Some hardware manufacturers are meeting the demand for traveller-friendly hardware with add-ons such as the Stowaway XT Keyboard. I’ve also been impressed with Atek’s Super Mini Optical Mouse, which frees you from the restrictions of your laptop’s finger-cramping pointer.
What’s next? As the convergence between cell phones, PCs and PDAs continues, it wouldn’t surprise me to see devices that offer the ergonomic comfort of a desktop with the portability of a PDA. It won’t come a moment too soon for many road warriors.
3. The Right Connections
Not to belabour the point, but connections are everything to the mobile office.
Remember Stone, the doctor without e-mail? He eventually accessed his messages through an unwieldy Web connection. Spencer Field, who recently returned from a trip to Melbourne, can also tell you about e-mail trouble. He learned upon arrival that the dial-up numbers to his Internet service provider (ISP) didn’t work. “I thought that was probably the end of my online access,” he says. “As a last-ditch effort, I let my fingers do the walking and checked out the Melbourne Yellow Pages for a local ISP.” He found one and signed up for a one-month e-mail account, which gave him access to local numbers on his entire itinerary.
It isn’t just Internet connections that matter to road warriors, but also hooking up to other devices such as cell phones, PDAs and laptop computers. Emerging technologies such as Bluetooth (a short-range wireless protocol) let you communicate with other devices in an office or hotel room without the need for cables.
The latest: According to a recent AT&T study, the top barrier to working from a remote location is access to a high-speed data connection. Super-fast wireless networks are springing up everywhere — in hotels, airport lounges and coffee shops. And even though Bluetooth got off to a slow start, the concept behind it — which is to lose the wires — is fundamentally sound.
What’s next? It won’t be long before Wi-Fi is as ubiquitous as cellular coverage and a majority of devices are Bluetooth-enabled. That’s good news for those of us who work in a mobile office.
4. The Right Web Applications
Web-based applications are so important to the mobile office that I’ve decided to give them their own category, even though they technically belong in the “software” section. The Web is one of the most efficient ways for a mobile worker to gain access to a back-office system, intranet or database.
My ISP offers a rudimentary application that lets me check all of my e-mail accounts from the Web. I can’t even remember how often I’ve had to use it because my e-mail program failed to work properly. But I do remember the last time. I was stuck at a meeting out-of-town and my e-mail account had sustained a spam attack — thousands of unsolicited e-mail messages — that would have taken hours to download. Instead, I logged on to the Web and zapped them all in seconds. Were it not for the Web application, I would probably still be downloading the spam.
The latest: One of the most innovative Web applications is Go ToMyPC, which lets you access the desktop in your home or office through the Web. Another useful application for mobile users is Web conferencing services such as Microsoft Office Live Meeting. Its latest wrinkle: integrating audio and Web conferencing in what it calls a “virtual” meeting space.
What’s next? Expect these applications to become cheaper, more reliable and even more sophisticated.