There’s no longer any excuse to be chained to a desk when you could be more productive elsewhere. After years of promising products and services that allow us to work from just about anywhere, gadget makers and telcos have finally delivered the goods making the mobile office a reality.
The best news is that operating a mobile office is neither expensive nor difficult. And it’s not restricted to geeks operating at the bleeding edge of technology.
In fact, the mobile office is teetering on the edge of entering the mainstream. Last month research company IDC reported that by 2015, 40 percent of all employees in the Asia Pacific region will use mobile office tools.
Being able to work on the move is increasingly important, especially for smaller enterprises. Telecom head of business marketing Lynne Le Gros says mobility is critical for her company’s small and medium business customers: “As they are often out in the field visiting customers, doing business overseas, or juggling their busy lifestyle as business owners.”
The term ‘mobile office’ means slightly different things to different groups of people. Here we use it to mean doing the kind of work that until recently required a computer, a phone and a desk, but doing it in a café, a car, the middle of a paddock or just about anywhere else.
Three key technologies – which all matured at roughly the same time – make the mobile office practical.
First, mobile hardware has come of age. For some people mobile hardware means tiny, lightweight gadgets like smartphones and tablets which pack as much power as conventional desktops or laptops but fit in a pocket.
For others needing more flexibility there are thin, featherweight notebook computers like the Apple MacBook Air or the Windows ultrabooks.
Second, today’s mobile broadband networks seamlessly connect these devices to the Internet and the rest of the world at decent data speeds.
While the experience may not be quite the same as fixed line broadband, the applications are different, so today’s 3G mobile broadband networks are more than adequate for most people’s needs.
Mobile data communications promise to get better still. Later this year Telecom will begin LTE (long term evolution) trials. LTE is the next generation of mobile broadband and will deliver speeds better than most people currently see on their fixed line broadband connections.
The third key technology driving the mobile office is cloud computing. This moves the hard work of crunching numbers and manipulating data to efficient and fast remote data centres. By doing so, it frees up local devices to concentrate on what they do best: displaying information. It also leaves companies to focus on their business rather than their technology.
Until recently, computing-on-the-go meant paying considerably more than desktop computing. There’s still a price premium, but it’s far lower and no longer out of reach for all but the most cash-strapped users.
Smartphones, tablets and basic notebook computers typically cost less than $1000. Even the most expensive, swept-up Apple Macbook Air note costs $2,500 – it looks good and feels nice, but in truth it packs far more computing power than most mobile office workers need.
The return on investment companies get from going for mobile hardware generally pays for itself within a few months.
Your specific applications and personal taste will determine the best devices for your needs.
Smartphones pack the most functionality into the smallest package, but they lack flexibility and can be tricky when it comes to entering large amounts of text. Choose one if mobility trumps dealing with lots of data or if you make a lot of calls.
Make sure the screen is adequate for your needs – it doesn’t make sense to squint at a few square inches of display if you’re reading all day long. If you need to do more than read and send email, consider a phone with a larger screen like the HTC One X which has a 4.7 inch screen.
Most smartphones are good for about eight to ten hours of moderate use on a single battery charge. They may not cope with being pushed hard all day, but their power is enough for sporadic data use.
Tablets, like Apple’s iPad, have a bigger screen and are much better for reading or writing documents. Even so, they are still not as flexible as PCs. This may or may not be an advantage to you.
It’s possible to buy tablets with keyboards, such as the Asus Transformer Pad; alternatively you can easily add a wireless keyboard. This gives you something almost as powerful as a laptop but in a smaller packet.
Tablet battery life depends on what features you use, but in general they should last all day.
Ultrabooks are Windows PCs that resemble the MacBook Air. They are lighter, thinner and less power-hungry than everyday laptops yet still have all the computing power you are likely to need and come with built-in keyboards.
They run standard desktop computer applications – while smartphones and tablets typically run cut-down apps. Notebook computers can have as little as two hours battery life; ultrabooks promise closer to six hours – but again this depends on how you use the tools.
Connecting to mobile networks
As you’d expect, smartphones are made to connect directly to mobile networks. They can also use Wi-Fi connections which are usually cheaper to use or even free but can be less secure and, at times, tricky. This matters if you deal with large amounts of data.
Tablets usually have the option of a mobile connection as well as Wi-Fi, but few New Zealanders choose 3G tablets.
There was a time when laptop makers sold machines with built-in hardware and antennae to connect to 3G mobile networks. These are no longer as popular. In their place are two closely-related devices. For casual mobile connections, you can buy something like Telecom’s $79 MF 190 T-Stick. This connects to a computer’s USB port and has its own Sim card. These devices almost always come preloaded with some data space – the MF 190 has 3GB – and you can buy more as you need it. The data can be prepaid, or you can register and buy more direct from your mobile company as you need it. You can only use a data stick with a tablet if it has a USB port – many don’t.
Portable wireless hotspots work similar to home Wi-Fi routers but connect directly to 3G networks rather than a land-line. These wireless hotspots are especially useful if you have more than one mobile device or want to share a connection with colleagues. Typically they are battery powered; using one will take pressure off your phone or gadget batteries. You’ll need a Sim card and will have to buy data in the same way that you buy it for a data stick.
Most modern smartphones can actually double as portable Wi-Fi hotspots. This drains battery life faster than normal, but has the advantage of using your phone’s Sim card so there’s no need to worry about managing a separate data account. It also means one less device to carry and one fewer set of batteries to worry about charging. In practice your choice of connection method depends on your specific needs.
Mobile makes a difference
All this sounds complicated, but it isn’t difficult in practice. And it is well worth the effort. Le Gros says Telecom’s customers notice the difference once they start using tablets and smartphones. She says one customer, TheRugbySite.com, relies on tablets and smartphones to communicate and check content with sponsors, investors or even the All Blacks coach. “Using tablets and smartphones has meant their technology and communication can move with them,” says Le Gros. “We also have business customers that use tablets and smartphones to improve work-life balance. As a busy business owner, they can get away on family holidays without worrying about being away from the office.”
While mobile data purchased from a mobile phone company costs more than fixed broadband data, you don’t usually use as much when you’re on the move.
Wireless data carriers charge by the gigabyte, so you need only pay for what you use. Prepay plans usually allow you to carry over data from one month to another; buying data casually can be expensive but competition is strong and it pays to shop around. It may even be worth dealing with one of the MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) geared to serving small businesses.
Mobile phone company wireless broadband has a huge advantage over Wi-Fi. The two big mobile networks cover most of New Zealand. As Vodafone and Telecom’s marketing says, their networks already reach 97 percent of the places New Zealanders work and play.
They’ll reach even further when the government-subsidised Rural Broadband Initiative gathers momentum. Wireless broadband networks will extend to farms and paddocks as well as along main roads and in population centres. The competition is ramping up fast with 2degrees currently extending its network across the medium-sized cities.
Mobile broadband speeds are not bad given that users on the move rarely use data-intensive applications. Although you’ll never see the advertised speeds of 7.2 Mbps on Telecom’s XT network, you can expect to get 3Mbps most of the time.
As mentioned earlier, later this year Telecom will begin testing LTE, which is much faster. LTE networks are already operating overseas, but Telecom says most New Zealanders will have to wait until after the government auctions the radio spectrum freed by moving from analogue to digital television.
Wi-fi a practical alternative
The mobile phone companies are not the only broadband option for mobile office workers. New Zealand has an extensive network of Wi-Fi networks. Some are free; some require you to spend money on a cup of coffee or a hamburger. One café in central Auckland chalks a Wi-Fi password on a notice board each day for paying customers – another prints the code on its receipts.
There are also networks in public libraries, and parts of central cities and towns are served by municipal free networks. You can expect moderate speeds and frequent disconnections from the free networks, but given the cost there’s little room for complaint. And, of course, many of the companies where you and your employees will be working allow access to their networks.
Even when you have to buy Wi-Fi access it is rarely expensive. Tomizone, a New Zealand-based international Wi-Fi service, has hot spots in busy places like railway stations and airport terminals as well as around CBDs. Prices start from around $3 an hour, which sounds a lot, but it drops quickly as you use more, expect to pay $6.50 for a day, $30 a week and $50 a month.
Cloud: the great mobile office enabler
Moving data to the cloud is the best thing that’s happened to the mobile office. Instead of struggling to connect to remote servers, you can now pull documents directly from the Internet using tools like Google Documents, Microsoft SkyDrive or Dropbox. Likewise having a cloud email service like Gmail is better than worrying about downloading incoming messages.
Cloud computing is cost effective – especially so when, thanks to New Zealand’s mobile data networks, those applications can be reached from almost any location where business takes place. Many cloud products are free to small scale users, but even when you have to pay, the charges are rarely high.
Pulling it all together
If you work on the move, assembling a mobile office will deliver the biggest productivity boost you’ve seen since PCs and mobile phones first appeared. Although the technology is readily understandable by the non-expert, there’s help if you need it. All three mobile carriers have experts on hand to help businesses go mobile.
Le Gros says this is important for Telecom: “All of our business customers have an account manager to educate and enable them to get the most out of their mobility devices as well as integrating with their other telco services. For mobility to be successful, we have found it’s about discussing with customers how it fits in with the whole of their business needs and technology.”
Bill Bennett is an Auckland-based freelance IT writer. Email [email protected]