Freedom from the office -- the Bedouin way

Leave the office behind -- forever

San Francisco Chronicle journalist Dan Frost wrote a nice piece recently about local digital nomads he called Bay Area Bedouins. These are people who work for San Francisco start-up companies without offices, who roam from one coffeehouse to the next, working wherever they find a Wi-Fi connection. (Traditionally, a Bedouin is a desert-dwelling nomad who lives in a tent and moves around to find greener pastures for his camels, sheep and goats, bringing everything he needs with him.)

No matter who you are, you can embrace the new Bedouinism. You don't have to live in the Bay Area or the desert or work for a start-up. You don't even need access to a coffeehouse. It's easy, and I'll tell you how. But first, let me tell you why becoming a Bedouin can improve your life.

Boost your career

There are several ways Bedouinism can help your career. The most obvious one is that, when you carry your office with you, you'll be more responsive to colleagues and customers. Instead of replying to requests for a document with: "I'm on the road today, so I'll send it to you when I'm at my desk on Monday," you can reply with: "Here's the document."

the Bose Quiet Comfort headset
The author busy at work on the Honduran island of Roatan during an islandwide blackout. This is why you need an extra battery.

A less obvious way the new Bedouinism can help you is that you can get closer to your business. For example, you can spend more time on the road visiting customers and attending more trade shows and other events that give you an edge. You can spend more time with suppliers and other business partners. You can do all this without a major penalty to your normal workload. You'll no longer do business the traditional way, in which you have two work modes: "in the office" and "on the road." Rather, you'll have only one work mode: "wherever I want to be and ready for anything."

You'll also be able to get work done at arbitrary times such as while shopping with your partner or standing in line at the DMV. In such situations, your brain is just sitting there doing nothing. You might as well whip out your phone and crank through some e-mails.

Take longer vacations

There's a lot of negative press these days about people who bring their work with them on vacations. And I agree. If you get only two or three weeks of vacation per year, you shouldn't spend that time working.

Bedouins take a different view. If you have the right kind of job, you can take vacations while you're "on the clock." In other words, you can travel for fun and adventure and keep on working. You can travel a lot more without needing more official vacation time.

I've done it. In August I took a monthlong vacation to Central America, backpacking from one Mayan ruin to the next, and I never officially took time off. I submitted my columns, provided reports and other input, participated in conference calls and interacted via e-mail. I used hotel Wi-Fi connections and local cybercafes to communicate and Skype to make business calls.

Nobody knew I was sunburned, drinking from a coconut and listening to howler monkeys as I replied to their e-mails.

Of course, this may be impossible in your line of work. But you can still be a part-time Bedouin and stretch vacations, taking small bits of time off that you otherwise couldn't.

Spend more time with friends and family

I don't advocate a workaholic lifestyle where you're taking calls constantly and never paying attention to the people in your personal life. But I do believe Bedouinism can get you out of your cubicle or office and into your home or wherever your family and friends are -- If you do it right.

Some critics slam the mobile lifestyle by saying that you never have any time off, that when e-mail comes in over the weekend, you are compelled to reply. But Bedouinism has no effect on the problem of workaholism -- it won't make you a workaholic if you aren't one now, and it won't cure workaholism, either. That's a separate issue (and a separate column). What Bedouinism does do is put you in control of where and when you work.

And remember: Giving yourself the ability to know when business e-mail and calls come in also tells you when they don't come in. My e-mail system sends all important e-mail to my BlackBerry Pearl, 24/7. (Here are details on my e-mail system.) So if my e-mail doesn't "ring" over the weekend, I can relax with the knowledge that nobody is waiting for me. If I do get mail over the weekend, I can choose to ignore it until Monday or, if it's important enough, reply immediately. In either case, I get maximum peace of mind. That's better than ignorance and the worry that some vital message is sitting there for days unread.

Have more fun

Here's the best reason to become a Bedouin: It's fun. Let's face it: offices suck. I'd much rather work at my dining room table, at the beach or -- what the heck -- at a San Francisco coffeehouse with the rest of my tribe. You spend one third of your waking life at work. Why spend a minute more than necessary in an environment where nobody wants to be?

The good news is that Bedouinism is cheaper and easier than ever before, thanks to myriad improvements in mobile hardware, software and services.

Here are my five steps to becoming a Bedouin:

1. Replace your desktop PC with a notebook. For less than $1,500, you can buy a desktop-replacement laptop with a 17-in. screen and tons of memory and storage. Get rid of your desktop computer forever and use one laptop for everything. If you crave the desktop experience, plug in peripherals like mouse, keyboard and giant monitor using a docking station.

People have their own preferences, but I wouldn't buy a laptop with anything smaller than a 17-inch screen. You'll be a lot happier and more productive than you would with a smaller screen. Buy an extra battery and look for hot-swappable components such as the ability to pull out the integrated CD/DVD drive and plug in the extra battery.

Every laptop has Wi-Fi these days, but make sure your new system has built-in Bluetooth, not the plug-in kind. You can use that Bluetooth connection for a variety of essential tasks such as using your cell phone as a modem and synchronizing your cell phone's data with the laptop.

Make sure you have extra protection for both your laptop and the add-on components. There are thousands of options available, from neoprene laptop covers to waterproof, padded briefcases. Find the option that best fits your style.

2. Buy a phone that does everything. Apple's iPhone is pretty but won't support your Bedouin lifestyle. The most important feature of a Bedouin-enabled phone is the ability to serve as a data modem for your laptop. Free yourself from the need to find Wi-Fi by making sure your cellular phone and data plan let you use your phone as a laptop modem. That means you can connect to the Internet with your laptop anywhere you can access data with your phone.

An alternative is to buy a laptop with an internal mobile broadband connection, which uses a data connection from one of the mobile carriers. Then you can go ahead and buy that pretty iPhone.

Most of the major "smart phone" devices will suffice, whether it's a BlackBerry, Palm or Windows Mobile device. My BlackBerry Pearl is the ultimate Bedouin device because it's tiny but does everything.

The Bedouin approach is to make your phone central. Important e-mails should come to your phone. Calendar and to-do reminders should ring your phone. Key business documents are stored on your phone. Heck, even phone calls should come to your phone. And I mean all of them. Forward both work and home calls to your cell phone.

A client calls your office number and imagines you in a suit in a downtown office. In fact, you're wearing jeans and enjoying a midmorning brunch with your spouse. The client is happy because he reached you in one try and didn't get voice mail. Your employer is happy because you're providing prompt and reliable customer service. But most of all, you're happy, because you're doing your job without being chained to a desk.

3. Buy Bedouin accessories for your phone. Real Bedouins do most of their work on the phone rather than the laptop and carry their phones everywhere. It helps to have a fold-up keyboard so you can type e-mails and other business communications fast. If you give presentations as part of your work, make sure you can run PowerPoint from your phone.

Don't skimp on add-on memory for your phone. Even the MicroSD format goes up to 2GBs. The choice is simple: Get the highest-capacity removable storage card your phone can handle. That extra capacity enables you to carry more documents, back up your laptop and bring all your personal media (including video), and can generally serve as a storage medium for moving large files from one PC to another.

4. Think "business continuity." If you're going to miniaturize and mobilize your business IT, you need to think like a CIO, not like a consumer. Instead of simply backing up your data, think in terms of "business continuity." What that means for Bedouins is that you need to easily recover and keep working in the event of a laptop catastrophe.

And you need to play "what if." What if a professional identity thief gets hold of your laptop? What if your competitor, subordinates, superiors or others gain access to your laptop? What if the laptop is destroyed by a meteor? What if your phone is left in a taxi?

Are you ready for it? Is your data encrypted, backed up and accessible without a laptop? Here's how to prepare yourself.

5. Embrace Skype. VoIP is the best thing that ever happened to the Bedouin. It's cheap, high-quality and works internationally. Buy a good stereo VoIP-ready headset with a built-in microphone. Sign up for the $29.95-per-year Skype Unlimited plan. Sure, you can use your cell phone for most calls, but serious Bedouins always have a backup plan. If you're outside your coverage area, you can usually find a Starbucks or some other place to make a Skype call via Wi-Fi.

Do you see the theme here? Mobile power and functional redundancy. Two computer options. Two batteries. Two phone options. Two wireless connection options. Taking two of everything you need wherever you go is the Bedouin way.

Since the industrial revolution, work for many has meant showing up to some undesirable location every day and remaining trapped in that place because that's where the resources are. Now the resources have been mobilized. So why are you still sitting there?

Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at or his blog:

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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