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Mobile Consulting: The Days of Living Wirelessly

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For the past several months, I have been living a “wireless” life. My stated justification for the experiment was that I wanted to test the feasibility of being a completely wireless, mobile worker and develop insights I could use to better understand the road warrior segment. In actuality, I am a technology junkie, and the experiment allows me to feed the need in a tax-deductible and socially acceptable way.

Tooling Up

Deciding what technologies to use was no small task. I began by replacing my business telephone line with a Onebox.com (unified messaging) account, which provides voicemail and incoming fax reception. For outgoing faxes, I use Faxcube.com. For temporary storage or transfer of large files, I use an Internet file storage service. My cellular telephone evolved into my primary telephone for personal calls and is used for returning or placing business calls. My dial-up Internet connection was replaced with a Ricochet wireless modem, although I still use my existing ISP accounts. My “dumb” cellular phone was replaced with a Neopoint “smart” phone, and I added an iSeries ThinkPad to my technology arsenal. My mobile office now fits in a large laptop case and creates quite a mess when I dump it out on the floor.

Configuring the various pieces to work as a cohesive replacement for a hard-wired office took a bit of work. In terms of integration, I decided to use one primary email address, in addition to my Hotmail (a.k.a. spam mail) account. Most of the important email is dumped into my primary email account. Onebox.com notifies my Neopoint smartphone (with email notification) whenever I receive a business voice-mail message or fax. FaxCube is used on an as-needed basis. As long as I stay within Ricochet-supported zones, I have instant Internet access for my ThinkPad.

Working Wirelessly or Working to Be Wireless?

Armed with this arsenal, it is possible to perform meaningful solo work nearly anywhere. If you believe the wireless commercials, I can now enjoy a productivity nirvana and be connected from anywhere. And 80 percent of the time, that’s true. I can smugly write this piece from a Starbucks, while others labor in their dark cubes.

But that remaining 20 percent can be tedious because having access to the Internet and portable computing resources is only half of the connected picture. Most work is performed by sharing information and infrastructure assets, including data on network

drives and printers. Simple things, such as copying existing documents from my clients’ networks, are often more easily achieved through sneakernet than by using email attachments or Internet storage.

Many companies use boilerplate, macros, and applications that can only be accessed through the companies’ networks. So even if you can get copies of final documents, a mobile worker may not be able to create similar documents without a hard-wired connection.

If you work for one company or a few homogenous clients, these issues aren’t insurmountable. But, if your client base is diverse, the obstacles multiply.

Et Tu, Paper?

Paper is the worst enemy of the mobile worker. While you strive for a paperless office, you burn through more paper than ever. Unless you can tap into a client’s network printer (through a direct LAN connection or through Windows networking), your choices are to send the document to a fax machine or carry a printer cable (and Windows CD) and stand by whatever printer you can borrow, after installing drivers. Mobile printer technology or wireless printer connections are still too slow, too heavy, too inconvenient, and too expensive. Few printers have accessible infrared connections for wireless printing from modern laptop computers, and many applications won’t print to a file so that the output can be redirected to a fax machine for printing.

Sending faxes from existing paper documents is another challenge. While portable scanners are available, they add significant bulk to an already overstuffed laptop bag. One alternative is to have someone else fax the document to your Onebox.com or Faxcube.com account, edit it, and resend it using those same services.

Even the shift from standard telephones to pure cellular has its challenges. Unlike wireline telephones, you must manage battery life and the time spent on calls, even if you have a generous calling plan. Conference calls are particularly difficult to carry on, given a rapidly dying phone battery, unpredictable background noise, static, and those dwindling “anytime” minutes. Instead of trying to change client behavior by eliminating the calls, I’ll still be using land lines for long conference calls and using pre-paid calling cards when initiating conference calls from land telephones to reduce my growing cellular bill.

Despite the annoyances, I enjoy being a wireless digital nomad. But I’ve learned that the business world is not yet unwired enough for everyone to enjoy mobility. Some question the price of my mobile freedom, given that I have to use all of these technologies and alternatives to coexist with the wired masses. I’m confident that as the mobile workforce grows, the infrastructure will evolve to accommodate the mobile worker. Regardless of the costs, wireless and mobile technologies really do create a feeling of freedom that is too addictive to resist.



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