Real Magic

Despite the best efforts of Starbucks, airports and entire cities like Philadelphia to make wireless high-speed networking ubiquitous, there remain many places on this good earth where you can't get a Wi-Fi link. That means your plans for mobile workers still require strategies and techniques for keeping them productive on their laptops when they stray beyond the network tentacles of the 21st century.

Ironically, one of the places where high-speed networks are often inaccessible is the reception areas of high-tech companies located in Silicon Valley. That's because CIOs there and elsewhere are smart enough to keep nosy visitors (journalists, for example) off their Wi-Fi networks for security reasons. On occasion, you'll see savvy folks in lobbies linked to cellular broadband networks using lower-speed protocols like Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO), offered by the likes of Verizon and Sprint, or Universal Mobile Telecommunication System (UMTS) from Cingular. EV-DO and UMTS employ PC card modems that connect laptops to nearby cell towers at a rate of around 1Mbit/sec. Although that's less than one-tenth the data rate possible with today's Wi-Fi systems, it's more than 14 times the speed you'll get from the fastest dial-up modem.

The biggest benefit of these cell phone "broadband" data services isn't their speed, it's their pervasiveness. If you can get cell coverage, you'll probably get EV-DO or UMTS. It's not limited to just big cities, where Wi-Fi is only now making headway.

Yet, even if every city blanketed its urban area with Wi-Fi signals, your mobile workers would still benefit from EV-DO or UMTS technology. Wi-Fi is not designed to hand off signals from one network to another. The cellular systems are designed specifically for that purpose. That's why on the train from Penn Station to Union Station, you can see a few tech-savvy road warriors downloading Web pages on their laptops via their cell modems while replicating their mail clients. It works almost like magic.

Beyond Bandwidth

The speed of those cellular protocols is fine for Web browsing or scanning some of your e-mail. But you can improve the end-user experience even more. For example, give your e-mail users tools such as Microsoft 's Outlook Mobile Manager (OMM). It can help manage messages when people are on the road by eliminating large attachments or sending summaries of calendar information instead of all the gory details. End users can set their own OMM preferences, or you can establish corporate policies and manage them centrally. One small drawback is that OMM works only for Outlook users with accounts on Exchange servers.

For your end users who spend lots of time researching online, consider equipping their systems with software like Offline Explorer Pro from MetaProducts, Spidersoft's WebZIP, Website Extractor from InternetSoft or other similar products. There are even plug-ins to Lotus Notes and Outlook that cache entire Web sites to laptop hard drives for later viewing. These tools are particularly useful for workers in the field who stay in low-rent motels with dial-up connectivity at best. After all, not everyone gets to stay at broadband havens like the Ritz-Carlton.

What about your road warriors who need to access information on sites they haven't already visited? Maybe they are subject-matter gurus and need to dig deep into detailed content that can be found only online. Consider what Webaroo has to offer. This Bellevue, Wash.-based start-up is attracting attention because its product doesn't just scoop up one Web site at a time like the tools mentioned above. Rather, its eponymous software crams whole subject areas of the Web onto your laptop. The company claims that its algorithms eliminate redundant content online, such as repetitive logos, photos, GIFs and whatnot. What's left is then indexed, compressed and stuffed onto your laptop's hard drive. (Such an accomplishment belies the ancient "Dilbert" cartoon about the pointy-haired boss who asks his beleaguered assistant to "print out the Internet" for him. Perhaps someday that won't be such a silly request.)

Not Magic Any Longer

In 1983, I wrote for a magazine, now long defunct, called Micro Communications. Back then, I grappled with the arcane difference between baud and bit rates and the equally Byzantine Hayes Command Set for 1,200bit/sec. modems. So forgive me if the act of sending and receiving e-mail while accessing the complete works of Shakespeare online as I sip coffee in an outdoor cafe or ride a cross-town bus remains somewhat magical to me.

Of course, it's positively pedestrian for many end users. They expect real-time data anywhere they happen to be. And they don't want any excuses about technical hang-ups. They see the person in the seat next to them accessing information, so it's not magic to them. Luckily, there are many ways to make it real.

See the complete Faces of Mobile IT special report.

Mark Hall is a Computerworld editor at large. Contact him at mark_hall@computerworld.com.

Special Report

The Faces of Mobile IT

Different types of mobile workers, such as road warriors, telecommuters and blue-collar workers, need different forms of IT support.

Stories in this report:

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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