Opinion: The 'anywhere computing' era dawns

Don't look now, but the 'mobile computing' idea is suddenly obsolete. We hardly knew ye.

In the beginning, there were computers.

They were huge, monstrously expensive, owned only by governments and giant corporations and imprisoned in special-purpose rooms. If you were an ordinary Joe, you couldn't get anywhere near one.

Human ingenuity and Moore's Law miniaturized computers and made them cheaper, small and cheap enough for ordinary people to have them in offices and homes.

Soon thereafter, the "portable" computer was born. It was like a regular computer, but you could "take it to go," set it up somewhere else and use it like a desktop PC but in a different location.

Everything changed in the 1990s. Networks proliferated, as did cell phones and general use of the Internet. At some point, "portable" computing transitioned into a very different and vastly superior scenario we call "mobile computing."

"Mobile computing" is "portable computing" with computing, connecting and communicating on the go.

In addition to taking a PC with you on a business trip and using it in a hotel room, you can now use your laptop in the taxi cab on the way to the hotel. You could use your cell phone for Web browsing and e-mail from lots of locations. And you could find Wi-Fi networks in coffee houses, airports, homes and offices and connect with either a laptop or cell phone.

Old and busted

Through habit, custom, rules or other limitations, we still feel like prisoners of our offices and cubicles, totally dependent on the "grid" -- both electrical and network. We still use -- often are required to use -- musty, obsolete technologies like landline phones, fax machines, credit cards and paper.

The mobile computing idea has been great. But it still limits us, perhaps more than we realize. We still accept limitations -- places or situations where we can't connect, compute or communicate. We accept our loss of Internet access during flights, while in some foreign countries, while in very remote areas, and when our batteries die or gadgets fail. We accept our inability to access current versions of our documents and files when our laptops crash or in social situations where laptops are inappropriate. Wi-Fi access is still rare, spotty, overpriced and problematic.

When we're away from our offices, we still consider ourselves "out of pocket," "inaccessible," "unavailable" and "offline."

We accept all kinds of limitations on perfect, total, constant and full access to all our stuff and to the myriad capabilities we have while sitting at our desks.

People might defend these limitations as welcome and necessary "breaks" from technology or work, but ultimately, they limit our choice and freedom over how, when and where we can take advantage of information technology.

The new hotness

The good news is that these limitations -- hard, soft, real or imagined -- are all going away.

Like the previous shift from portable to mobile computing, the transformation is gradual and uneven, and caused by a combination of new products, services, attitudes and ideas.

Computing required you to go where the computer was. With portable and mobile computing, you took it with you. But in this new era of anywhere computing, the computer is already there. It's everywhere. It's in your laptop. It's in your pocket. It's in anyone else's computer. It's on remote mountaintops, islands and deserts. It's available from every corner of the globe -- no exceptions.

The elements of anywhere computing

Here are some of the many enablers of this radical shift:

Do-it-all cell phones. Once rare, cell phones and smart phones that you can use as a laptop modem are now common. Phones with GPS; giant screens; peripheral, fold-out keyboards; PowerPoint support; and other advanced features are now numerous and affordable.

Satellite phones. Per-minute charges are high, but as a backup plan, satellite phones are invaluable for connecting from anywhere.

Ultramobile PCs. A new range of wireless UMPCs and similar super-small computers enable you to do real work in places you previously couldn't, such as on economy-class tray tables, restaurant table tops, you name it. They also serve as a low-cost, "second laptop" while on the road in case something happens to your main laptop.

Rugged devices. Indestructible, waterproof laptops, tablets and cell phones enable you to work outside, and help make sure your stuff is still available in harsh conditions.

Alternative energy. A new generation of compact solar chargers and even wind-up chargers means you never have to be sidelined by dead batteries.

Functional flash memory. "Thumbnail" flash memory drives are everywhere, and some enterprising companies are using this technology to offer low-cost, solid-state devices that back up, secure and even provide operating systems for your data.

Gadgets for storage. Most new pocket gadgets these days are available with tons of storage or support for removable media. That means your smart phone or iPod can serve as a ready backup drive for all the documents you're currently working on.

Online Office replacements. Services like Google Documents and many others provide not only zero-install replacements, but also provide backup, storage and the sharing of your word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation documents. Many let you save in standard Microsoft formats for mailing to colleagues. (I wrote this column during a business trip using both Google Documents online and Word for Windows on my laptop, writing bits in three airports, two airplanes, three Starbucks and one unfashionable hotel.)

Software that "mirrors" your cell phone. Free services like Dashwire are emerging, which not only back up and "mirror" the contents of your cell phone online, they let you use all that stuff -- including chat, phone configuration and more -- on the Web. If you lose a phone, they can also help you restore to the replacement phone.

Low-cost online backup. As Francis Ford Coppola discovered recently, online backup is a really good idea. You can constantly back up gigabytes of data for just three or four dollars a month. And if your laptop is destroyed, you can quickly access everything with another system.

Web 2.0. Another dozen or more new Web 2.0 services emerge every day that empower users, often free of charge, and provide exciting new options for communicating, organizing, brainstorming with, accessing, learning about, filtering, managing, processing and enhancing your information.

VoIP. Online phone calls enable you to make free or low-cost calls from cybercafés or any other Internet connected computer, and can provide a backup if you can't call from a cell phone.

Phone-to-PC services. A new category of specialized, free voice-recognition services like Jott and CallWave enable you to send yourself reminders, add things to your calendar or to-do list with a single speed-dial button and a few choice words into your cell phone, or get voice-mail as e-mail. They turn phones into remote PC input devices.

Cell phone versions of desktop replacement services. Many of these online services that replace desktop applications, such as Plaxo, Gubb, Google Calendar, Gmail, Maps and others, offer free minimalist cell phone views of your data.

Cybercafes everywhere. You can find a cybercafe now everywhere, even in small towns in Third World countries.

In-flight Wi-Fi. Major carriers in the U.S., Europe and Asia are rolling out wireless access during flights. Currently, the majority of U.S. carriers do not yet offer in-flight Wi-Fi, but you do have a choice in carriers. And soon enough, most airlines will offer it.

Hotels with great connectivity. Gone are the days when you had to fret over your hotel's connectivity. Most business hotels offer Wi-Fi. Others still offer Ethernet. Some provide both.

Neo-Bedouinism. A new breed of entrepreneur is starting companies, building businesses and doing it all without bothering to lease office space. Employees work wherever -- home, coffee shops, you name it. Even people at more traditionally established companies are using neo-Bedouin techniques every chance they get, sneaking off to the local coffee house for some uninterrupted productivity. Some are taking vacations without taking vacation time off. They're traveling abroad and working all the while. The idea here isn't to never really take vacations, but to travel three months out of the year, even when your company gives you just three weeks.

Generation Y. People in their 20s now entering the work force are different from the rest of us. They don't remember, can't imagine and would never accept a world without 24/7 Internet connectivity. They grew up being available at all hours to friends via chat and cell phone. They don't see technology as an imposition, but as an enabler that connects them at all times to people they know.

How anywhere computing works

Some of this is pretty new, and some is very new.

Anywhere computing involves not just new capabilities, but extreme redundancy. Like the mobile computing era, you carry your laptop while traveling, ready to connect via Ethernet or Wi-Fi. But in the anywhere computing era, you can connect with a mobile broadband card, too. Failing that, you can connect your phone and use that as a modem. If your laptop dies, you can use a UMPC. If that gets stolen, you can connect with your phone. Or use any computer you find and interact with recent online backups. Or use the files on your phone or thumb drive. Or... the alternatives are endless.

In the anywhere computing universe, nothing can stop you.

The idea of backing up before a trip, taking the "hit" while away, then recovering upon your return is a mobile computing concept. The anywhere computing idea is not to recover after you get back, but to never be sidelined. You can continue working, playing and communicating, even when your laptop and/or cell phone are lost, destroyed or incapacitated.

"Anywhere computing" involves full access at arbitrary, unexpected times -- while shopping, sailing, sleeping -- whatever, whenever, wherever.

Some will think all this is unnecessary or extreme. Just 15 years ago, critics thought the same thing about mobile computing concepts like using a laptop on an airplane or connecting from a hotel room. People who scoff at the "excesses" of anywhere computing will be doing it within two years.

And you can do it right now. Anywhere.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon