Walls? What walls? What hours? What limits? The world of work is no longer constrained by the four physical dimensions of space and time that have hemmed us in for most of recorded history. The internet and the many novel technologies spinning out of it have created a much more flexible universe with fewer limits, more powerful tools and more work options. Technology is letting growing numbers of us shift our working hours and job sites to times and places that allow us to be more productive.
According to research by one telecommuting advocacy group, some fairly unconventional locations are already workplaces. Not only do one-third of Americans regularly work from home, reports ITAC, the Telework Advisory Group for WorldatWork , but half of those also work in their automobiles, and one-third work in parks or other outdoor locations. A third even admit to working while on vacation. OK, not all of us balance our home and work lives all that well. But the point is, we have options today. No walls, no limits, right?
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when we started to acquire this flexibility. We've been using home and portable electronics to poke holes in office walls for decades. But those became truck-size gaps after the explosion in virtual connectivity over the internet in the late 1990s. Similar explosions in broadband wireless networking and cell-phone use over the past five years have brought us to a point where many of us can be productive just about anywhere we want--although with varying degrees of convenience and expense.
Gazing out to the horizon, we see convenience increasing and expense decreasing across the board. This year, we'll witness the widespread deployment of broadband cellular networks across America with still broader, wide-area versions of Wi-Fi just over the hill. As wireless networks fill in to create a cloud of seamless connectivity nationwide, we'll gain easier access to all our data and all our applications at all our work sites around the clock. That will also result in new and innovative portable devices and services not yet imagined--developments many analysts refer to as the second generation of internet connectivity.
As these new capabilities take hold, access to people and data will be much more immediate--and won't require us to carry our work around in bulky equipment whose data needs to be synchronized with our work spaces in other locations. Increasingly, we'll only need to carry powerful palm-size telecomputing devices--small portables, tablets, smartphones or single-purpose appliances that will be richly featured and wirelessly connected to a worldwide network. Between these endpoints, we'll access any or all of our work resources and unimaginable amounts of data back at the office--or wherever it resides--using applications, some of which haven't yet been invented.
Sound vague? The future always is. Who predicted IM, blogs, podcasts, wikis or the capabilities that flow from Google Earth's space window onto your street? For that matter, who foresaw the changes that one more entrant in a long line of search engines would bring?
The only thing we know for sure is that we have a lot more of this sort of thing coming because the little engines that have brought it all to us so far are still doubling in power every couple of years, with no end in sight. Like the California gold rush of the 1850s or low-cost energy in the 1950s, our current productivity boom is being underwritten by a cheap commodity--microprocessor cycles. We're flush with processing power from engines that keep getting smaller and cheaper. That spells continued improvements in mobility. The same technology that reshaped our homes and offices is now helping us be productive at all points in between.
Its latest, greatest application will help us whittle down the last great office cost center--telecommunications. After 125 years in which the telephone hadn't changed much, it's nearly impossible to keep up with the flow of new communications devices and services coming about. The long-awaited convergence of telephones and computers is finally upon us, and only the rare electronic device won't have some of each going forward.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.