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Make Your Car an Office on Wheels

Keep your business rolling by making your car an office on wheels.
February 1, 2006
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/174066

Does it feel like you spend more time in your car than in your office? You're not alone--even if you don't carpool. A recent wide-ranging study by The Dieringer Research Group revealed that almost 21 million Americans work in their automobiles. It's not really surprising when you consider how many of America's 135 million workers have outbound jobs--salespeople, client-services providers and entrepreneurs in particular. Work pressures being what they are, we've long turned on everything from cell phones to laptops to get a little jump on work outside work. We download e-mail, spruce up presentations and, of course, make lots of client calls while we're gridlocked.

ITAC, the Telework Advisory Group for WorldatWork, calls this "embracing telework"--the new way to describe our decades-old love affair with telecommuting. Not only are a third of us working at home these days, but we're also "mobile working" in planes, trains and automobiles. More than 15 million of us can even be found working at parks and other recreational sites from time to time, according to ITAC, whose web address pretty much says it all: www.workingfromanywhere.org .

Whether the prospect of more places to work makes you glad or sad, the direction is clear. The continuous stream of laptops, cell phones and all things portable has left us pretty well outfitted. The only thing missing is a place to plug them in--and I'm not talking about an AC power outlet. Most new cars are equipped with outlets for electronics, and there are plenty of aftermarket add-ons (see " Road Requirements "). The thing that will take mobile working to the next level is a broadband internet onramp--and a wireless one is just around the corner.

Consider the workstyle of 50-year-old yacht broker Berny Coffey, founder of WME Yachts Ltd. in Alexandria Bay, New York. Coffey's office is wherever he parks his car--and it needs to be, because business keeps him traveling to marinas and boat shows six months a year. Coffey actively manages a network of 35 brokers around the world, with annual sales of almost $50 million.

Besides the usual telecomputing quiver, Coffey's key piece of equipment is a WavBoard wireless router from Omniwav Mobile. Easily mounted in a glove compartment or trunk, WavBoard connects Coffey to Verizon Wireless' EV-DO network at 400Kbps or better, and it connects his laptop and printer/copier to the internet over Wi-Fi.

Coffey carries the portable WavBoard into boat shows and marinas, where he often gives prospective buyers continents away a live videocam tour of a yacht while chatting over Skype's toll-free phone service.

"I was in Florida when Hurricane Wilma hit," recounts Coffey, "and my brokers couldn't tell we were without electricity or phones for seven days because I never missed a beat. If my cell phone wouldn't work somewhere, VoIP would."

In the Carport

In the Carport
As cellular providers build out their 3G networks by year-end and more hardware vendors exploit that availability, you'll also be able to wander as widely as Coffey. You can already find 400Kbps-to-700Kbps service in more than 200 metro areas, with 100Kbps--plus speeds pretty much everywhere in between. Bandwidth will increase and prices will fall next year as Mobile WiMAX (802.16e) and other multi-megabit-per-second networks like Flash/OFDM come into their own.

Your telecomputing gear won't need to change much. At most, you may want laptop, phone or printer/fax/copier versions that fit your car's ergonomics and connectivity options--or maybe accessories that make it easier to dock and undock your tools as you dash in and out of your mobile office. The other necessary piece of equipment is a short-range wireless network in and around your car.

You may soon see more Wi-Fi/3G router combinations. But fully half of all automobile brands are already building 1Mbps Bluetooth connectivity into at least some of their models, says Phil Magney, co-founder and principal analyst of Telematics Research Group, a research and data firm in Minneapolis. Carmakers have long design cycles, and Bluetooth was settled on before the arrival of 480Mbps Wireless USB. But Bluetooth is fast enough to connect digital entertainment systems to widely available Bluetooth-enabled phones and computers, says Magney.

New models let you voice-dial a docked cell phone or choose a number from an automatically synced contact list in your car's entertainment system. Incoming calls automatically mute music on the radio and can be answered using a steering wheel button. In-dash information displays are designed for safe access to in-vehicle communications and navigation systems. At some point, maps, directions and various menu options could be transparent images on your windshield. GPS-based navigation is on its way to becoming standard automobile equipment, says Magney, as are satellite radio and connections to iPods and other MP3 players.

By the way, if you're driving a late-model car, you're already piloting a computer on wheels that electronically controls braking, steering and other major systems. Digital entertainment systems are adding DVDs, LCDs, and magnetic and flash drives to the cabin. This time next year, says Magney, we'll see car-top antenna packages with various combinations of "cellular, GPS, Wi-Fi and WiMAX-you name it."

We really don't have that far to travel before your car will be outfitted just about as well as your office or home.

Road Requirements

Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.