Appearances can be deceiving. Call ThoughtLink owner and co-founder Julia Loughran, and you'll reach her quickly. But will you find her in her Vienna, Virginia, office or out on one of her frequent brainstorming walks?
You'll probably never know, and it really doesn't matter. That's because, for 42-year-old Loughran and her million-dollar company, work isn't tied to a particular location or hour of the day. It's about being available virtually everywhere, virtually anytime.
Loughran's team of five, which crafts distributed team strategies for government and commercial clients, reaches out with numerous mobile technologies. They employ notebooks connected over Cingular Wireless' broadband cellular network and headsets for talking over Skype's VoIP phone service. Team members don't use their computers only to place low-cost calls--Skype also has an IM service that lets them track work buddies.
"We use it even if we're just trying to reach someone at the office," says Loughran. "It gives you an idea of whether someone is present, and dialing is easier than looking up a phone number."
On the road, she's personally armed with a Sony VAIO FS790 she bought last October. It includes a 15.4-inch screen and a full-size keyboard, and it cost less than $2,000. If Loughran can't find a Wi-Fi hot spot, she can wirelessly hook up to a Bluetooth-capable cell phone.
A Business Born to Be Mobile
Given her line of work, Loughran's use of mobile technology is understandable. But she's just one of a growing number of entrepreneurs convinced they couldn't run their companies without round-the-clock connectivity through laptops and other mobile technologies.
"I have more than one business, so I have to multitask and be accessible," says Gregg Steiner, 36, vice president and co-owner of Pinxav.com , a family-run, Shaker Heights, Ohio, company that markets a diaper-rash cream.
Steiner's current computer of choice is a Gateway Tablet PC with a 14-inch screen, capable of running two web browsers side by side. The $1,300 system can run a full workday on a single battery charge. Steiner also pays $60 monthly to download e-mail and make Skype phone calls over Verizon Wireless' broadband EV-DO network. His tablet has been his traveling companion in places as far west as San Francisco and as far-flung as picturesque villages in Italy.
Some entrepreneurs, like 45-year-old Scott Gray of Philadelphia-based Gray Consulting, are even turning their own mobile computing expertise into value-added services for their clients. As co-founder of the multimillion-dollar events management firm, Gray observed that those who attended his events needed connectivity back to the office just as badly as his own employees did.
Over the past three years, Gray has spent $120,000 working with IT consultancy Decisive Business Systems in Pennsauken, New Jersey, to make that happen. Gray Consulting is outfitted with multiple Hewlett-Packard servers, notebooks, printers and scanners with Citrix client/server software for remotely running applications over a VPN.
An Altigen analog/VoIP phone switch and Castelle Faxpress let voice calls and faxes be routed to employee notebooks wherever they happen to be. Client information is readily accessible from notebooks and Palm Treos alike. A similar setup is available to clients during offsite events, saving them hefty hotel telecommunications surcharges. Says Gray, "To us, this is part of the customer service philosophy."
Ready, Willing and Able
Everywhere you look, someone is toting or typing on a portable computer. For many, laptops are a lifestyle statement. Buyers can not only rely on rising processing power and falling price points, but also on a wide array of options in shape, weight and even entertainment capabilities.
"The price/performance [ratio] in notebooks is so good that there really isn't any difference from desktops," says Gerry Purdy, principal analyst with Mobiletrax, a Cupertino, California, mobile technology consultant.
Purdy and other analysts identify two trends driving strong growth in portable sales this year. One is the availability of broadband wireless connectivity far beyond the confines of Wi-Fi hot spots. The other is ultraportability--not just lighter systems, but more ergonomic computing.
On the wireless front, integrated Wi-Fi is virtually pervasive. But laptop vendors continue to widen your connectivity options by including broadband cellular receivers in notebooks. Increasingly, laptop buying will also involve picking a cellular provider. Dell, HP and Lenovo are among the largest computer builders offering cellular options in their portables.
"For the first time, this stuff is relatively seamless," says Brian Solis, 35, founder and principal of Future Works, a communications firm in San Jose, California. He has been using a Sprint 3G card with his Sony VAIO notebook since early last summer.
Ian Kieninger, manager of voice and data at nationwide technology distributor CDW, says advances in communications technologies have stoked blazing portable sales. Aside from integrated Wi-Fi and cellular 3G progress, he believes internet-based communications services such as Skype have recast mobility.
"When a company is small and nimble, flexibility is key," says Kieninger. "Leveraging the bandwidth is an integral component; it can really set a nice foundation for a company to grow." Kieninger advises entrepreneurs to buy VoIP technology, mobile devices and a basic high-speed internet connection at the same time.
Another trend that will color mobility this year is shape-shifting portables. Leslie Fiering, research vice president with Gartner Inc., says widescreen models are percolating into the business world. In fact, market researcher IDC believes sales of portable PCs with wide screens will outstrip those with standard aspect ratios this year. A whole bunch of these systems became available last fall.
The Acer Aspire 9500, an 8-pound notebook priced at about $1,299 (all prices street), features a 17-inch display, integrated Wi-Fi, a 120GB hard drive, integrated DVD-Dual drive, a 5-in-1 memory card reader and optional graphics boosters. The 17-inch Fujitsu LifeBook 6220 sports similar features plus an integrated subwoofer, built-in TV tuner and ATI graphics for $1,649. Alienware also got into the game with its Area-51 m5700, a 17-inch model with Windows Media Center Edition and integrated wireless starting at $1,399. Then there's Toshiba's Qosmio, starting at $1,799. Cast as a personal entertainment system, it sports a rectangular form that is bound to make the square block notebook a thing of the past.
Systems like this afford weary travelers a little downtime, letting them watch DVDs between business decisions. "Frankly, anybody who gets to choose their own notebook really appreciates those things," Fiering says.
Likewise, ultracompact models are finding a fast following, according to mobile researchers, as dual-core processor technology enables vendors to cram more power into ever smaller packages without the prospect of a meltdown. "It's becoming a story of extremes," Fiering says.
Some options you might want to check out: Lenovo's ThinkPad Z60t, a 14-inch-screen model priced at $1,099 that's just 1.1 inches thick and weighs 4.2 pounds; and the equally slim 14-inch Gateway MX3560, featuring a DVD+/-R/RW drive for $1,049. For sheer buzz factor, you should consider the Sony VAIO TX series, which starts at about $2,000. One model features an LED-powered screen that is just 4.5 millimeters thick, packaged within a carbon-fiber body (the same stuff they use to build jets) and lasting up to 7.5 hours on one battery.
Then again, you might want to wait. Tom Ribble, product manager for the ThinkPad Z line, says portable vendors will continue to add features this year, such as a wider variety of media slots, additional durability features, and integrated cameras and microphones to better enable communications applications like VoIP.
"Every time there is something new, it's hard to turn it down," says FutureWorks' Solis, a self-avowed coveter of VAIO's new TX line.
Certainly, there are enough options to appeal to virtually every mobile lifestyle, as entrepreneurs and their teams take to the sky, road or simply the couch for a midnight e-mail session. Says Solis, "Everyone has their own talents and capabilities. You don't want to box that in."
Let's Get Together Now
If there's a downside to mobility, it's the isolation factor. Files on your portable can get out of date quickly, and even if you're connected to the network remotely, you can feel disconnected.
Julia Loughran, co-founder of ThoughtLink in Vienna, Virginia, says she takes advantage of collaboration software to make her entirely distributed team of five feel like they're in the same office. Her tools of choice include Groove, now sold by Microsoft, which also markets the SharePoint service, and FreeConference.com, a free conference-calling site.
Other tools, such as software from Colligo Networks in Vancouver, British Columbia, let you set up ad hoc computer-to-computer networks with colleagues from a park bench or an airport lounge--albeit at a cost of $100 per user.
"The ability to share information with people wherever you are, whenever you have to, is something that people are going to value," says Barry Jinks, Colligo CEO.
Of course, tools like these can't yet fully replace human interaction, which is why you're on the road in the first place. Says Loughran, "Despite these technologies, nothing replaces face-to-face contact."
Your Virtual Switchboard
eBay's acquisition of the wildly popular Skype service last fall put telecommunication carriers on notice and marked a turning point for technology that lets you place cheap phone calls over the internet--increasingly from portable PCs.
Skype alone has attracted 54 million converts in two and a half years. It's also inspiring the birth of entirely new companies such as iSkoot, which forwards internet calls from your computer to your phone and, conversely, lets you call your Skype buddies' PCs from your cell phone.
Skype is ratcheting up development of specific services for small businesses, notes Ian Kieninger, manager of voice and data for nationwide distributor CDW. Other hosted VoIP services worth a listen are Bandwidth.com, Covad, Nuvio, Qwest and Vonage, says Kieninger.
SearchPath International founder Tom Johnston opted for a hosted PBX system when setting up his franchise organization's headquarters in Cleveland. In the 10,000-square-foot office, the only phone is used for 911 calls and faxes--despite the fact that recruiting is a heavily call-based business.
Says Johnston, "I could throw my laptop out the window, go buy a new one and get right back online."