Keep Your Business on the Move

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."

Heather Clancy, editor of technology newsweekly CRN, has been covering the industry for 16 years.
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