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Not too many years ago, an entrepreneur booting up a laptop computer in a meeting or public place would get inquiring glances. With luck, clients and colleagues would be impressed and even envious. Nowadays, however, mobile warriors who want a reaction to any piece of portable business technology will likely be disappointed.
"We're moving from the gee-whiz phase into one where this is normal," says Gerry Purdy, a mobile technology analyst in Cupertino, California.
Today, mobile warriors have no excuse for not being instantly reachable by cell phone or e-mail on a PDA. They're expected to pull up inventory and pricing information on a laptop with a high-speed connection and give presentations using portable projectors.
Of course, just because it's expected doesn't mean it's easy, or cheap. But forget about the days when having facts at your fingertips meant packing a paper address book and being connected meant a pocket full of quarters and a phone booth.
"People communicate via phone, e-mail and fax even more than in person," says Miya MacKenzie, vice president of marketing for iGo Corp., a portable technology retailer in Reno, Nevada. "On the road, you lose days if you can't communicate with the office, your customers and your prospects."
With these facts in mind, Entrepreneur looked at the latest trends in cell phones, laptops and PDAs, as well as the status of wireless data access, Web conferencing, videoconferencing, portable presentation electronics and how you can keep it all safe.
Business travelers may leave laptops and PDAs at home for short trips. But few will so much as walk down the hall without a cell phone. Approximately 400 million cell phones are sold annually, and their use continues to grow due to improving devices and services. Phones are smaller, lighter and easier to use, plus they sport nifty new features such as SMS. With nearly 85 percent of the almost 129 million subscribers on digital networks, quality of service is also improving, according to the Cellular Communications and Internet Association. Costs are also staying low: average monthly bills were up less than 5 percent to over $47.
Yet cell phone sales are down as telecommunications networks have been slow to upgrade to the 2.5G standard, which provides faster access to the Internet and e-mail through wireless devices such as cell phones and wireless-enabled PDAs. Without networks that can support features such as wireless e-mail and Internet access, advanced phones are languishing on the shelves. "Only about 20 percent of the U.S. is covered by 2.5G networks," says Purdy. "And, at best, they operate at speeds equivalent to a phone line."
That's changing, says James Murray, a venture capitalist in Charlottesville, Virginia, specializing in the wireless industry. Cell phone-PDAs from Handspring, Kyocera and others that use cellular networks to do the same job as the BlackBerry wireless devices are already here.
"By 2010," Purdy says, "all professional people in the developed world are going to carry around wireless-enabled devices that support both voice and data."
The second most common tools road warriors use are laptops, which represent a growing percentage of the 49 million computers shipped in 2002, according to research firm IDC. E-mail and Internet dependence drives laptop sales, explains iGo product manager Andy Szeto. "People need access to the Internet and e-mail. Even when traveling for pleasure, they take their laptops so they can check their e-mail," he says.
As they shrink in size and weight, machines are growing in power. A midrange laptop, for example, boasts a 2GHz processor, a 40GB hard drive, a DVD-ROM drive, and 128MB or more of memory.
They are also running longer on batteries. Low-power consumption processors as well as lithium-polymer battery packs mean that some laptops can run up to eight hours on a single charge.
Laptops may be two to three times as expensive as desktops, but they're still less costly today than they were a few years ago. For $1,100 or so, travelers can get a basic laptop; twice that will get them a top-rated model that offers most of the extras, including the hottest new feature for standard laptops, built-in chips for communicating with wireless LANs.
The most talked-about development is the introduction of PCs based on a new version of Microsoft Windows called Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. These devices let people enter text using their own handwriting while providing the power of a laptop. Though clipboard-shaped PCs have been around for years and have met with a lackluster reception, Microsoft is gathering support from mainstream laptop-makers such as Hewlett-Packard, NEC and Toshiba.
This time will be different, Purdy predicts, as tablet- makers enhance the networking and communication capabilities of these devices. Eventually, he says, "the three devices people will carry with them will be the tablet PC for taking notes, the handheld with voice and data and the notebook that [creates] text."
Ordinary people in ordinary circumstances may communicate with spoken and written text, but for entrepreneurs in business situations, PowerPoint presentations are the native tongue. For mobile entrepreneurs, the ability to make a really good presentation is tied to the ability to bring their own computers and their own portable projectors. With plummeting prices and escalating features, portable projectors are effective solutions for growing businesses.
A few years ago, an LCD projector carried a hefty price tag and was heavy enough to weary even the most stalwart business traveler. Today, Epson, one of the leading portable projector-makers, priced its latest model, the Powerlite 730C, which weighs just over 4 pounds, at $3,999 (street). Less lightweight models, such as Epson's $1,299 6-pound Powerlight 30C, are much brighter and sharper at the expense of some portability.
Next-generation projectors from Toshiba and a few others allow different users in a room or small building to control a presentation wirelessly using built-in Wi-Fi high-speed networking. At the moment, wireless presentations suffer from slow transmission rates, but faster wireless networking promises to fix that.
Meanwhile, says Mark Pickard, group product manager for audiovisual products at Epson America, "we just keep getting smaller, lighter and brighter. It's just incremental changes over and over again, but it's resulted in some very high-performance products."
Handheld computers are experiencing the most rapid acceptance of any of the big three mobile technology platforms, which includes cell phones and laptops. Worldwide smart handheld device shipments should jump by more than 13 percent in 2002, says reserach firm IDC. What's the attraction? It's not just the hardware, which boasts processors running at 400MHz and up to 64MB of internal memory, or the basic operating software, usually Microsoft's Pocket PC version of Windows or Palm's OS. According to James H. States, a Spokane, Washington handheld computing consultant , a major factor is the increasing sophistication of software that ties the devices to the information and applications entrepreneurs need to run their firms.
States points to HanDBase, a database program from DDH Software that gives Windows- or Palm-based handhelds the ability to extract data from a variety of corporate computer databases, allowing CEOs to pack, for example, the very latest inventory and sales in a pocket. "This is one of the most important developments in product technology," says States.
Combined with large-capacity memory cards that let handhelds carry up to 256MB of data on a plug-in chip, "you can easily carry your products, product descriptions, product databases and prices, all updated on a regular basis [by synchronizing your PC with your PDA]," he says. Other similar programs, such as Quickoffice 6.0 from Cutting Edge Software, allow handheld owners to view, edit and synchronize spreadsheets and word processing documents created on desktops using Microsoft's Office applications.
For heavy-duty handheld computing, States is less enamored of the cell phone-PDA hybrids such as Handspring's Treo 300. One problem is the lack of a seamless nationwide data network for these devices to work with, he says. Another is the way wireless modems, faster processors andcolor screens eat up power. Early PDAs ran 40 hours on a couple of AAA batteries, he notes, while the latest Compaq iPaq handheld lasts only three to five hours.
"Mobile isn't so mobile if the color screen and the processor eat up so much power that you have to plug in every four to six hours," States says. "If you pound out the pages on your PDA, you'll have to choose wisely so you can be away from an outlet."
While technology such as wireless data access enables more effective business travel, other technology makes it possible for businesspeople to avoid travel. The best example is videoconferencing. Improvements in equipment and networks make today's videoconferences "almost like television," says Mike Taylor, a videoconferencing analyst at Kinko's Inc., which operates more than 150 videoconferencing centers in its copy shops nationwide.
Disaster, not technology, is the biggest news in videoconferencing. After 9/11 reduced people's willingness and ability to travel, Kinko's 9-year-old videoconferencing business experienced an unprecedented demand. Things have leveled off, Taylor reports, but are still at a higher level than before 9/11.
It may be unusual for a technology-based solution, but one thing that hasn't changed about Kinko's service is the price. For the past three years, a two-location videoconference has cost $450 per hour. One thing that's holding down prices may be competition from Web-based videoconferencing. This technology lets entrepreneurs set up a Web page that displays PowerPoint slides and other presentation material. A number of services host Web conferences at a fraction of the price for videoconferencing. You can also purchase software you can use to set up your own Web conferences for a few hundred dollars.
Another solution is to invest in inexpensive hardware that will allow you to do your own videoconferencing over the Internet. Polycom sells a $499 combination videocamera and interface that lets a regular desktop PC work as a videoconferencing system. Barry Walker, vice president of marketing for Polycom's video communications group, says portable videoconferencing allows entrepreneurs to both cut back on business trips and remain effective when they're out of town. "There are people who travel with them because [the systems] work with [their] laptops," he says. "This makes them video-enabled wherever they go."
While some technologies experience incremental change over time, others are overturned by maverick ideas that seem to arrive from nowhere. In the world of wireless data access, that role is currently being played by a technology that was supposed to be about using radio waves to create small, short-range computer LANs. This technology, built on a networking standard called 802.11b, popularly known as Wi-Fi, is being used to create public "hot spots" where anyone with a wireless-enabled laptop can access the Internet without cables.
Wi-Fi hot spots began to appear in 2001 as individuals set up wireless networks connected to the Internet and invited anyone within range to share their high-speed connections. The idea caught on, and businesses jumped on board so quickly that most major airports, some hotels and, soon, 1,200 Starbucks locations host Wi-Fi hot spots today .
While 2.5G cellular networks will give computer users data access even from fast-moving cars, Wi-Fi hot spots provide access to data for semimobile users, says Kim Thompson, director of corporate communications for T-Mobile USA. A Bellevue, Washington, subsidiary of wireless carrier Deutsch Telecom, T-Mobile is working with Starbucks to set up such coffeehouse hot spots using Wi-Fi technology. "Wi-Fi is for customers who are going to be somewhere for a while and want to download chunks of data like a PowerPoint presentation," she says. T-Mobile and Starbucks will charge customers a fee for tapping into the wireless network.
Wi-Fi can move data at several megabits per second, many times faster than the 2.5G wireless data networks being deployed by cellular systems. But the signals are short-range, fading after a few hundred feet, so it's unlikely Wi-Fi hot spots will blanket the country as 2.5G promises to do. For that reason, a coexistence between Wi-Fi and 2.5G is likely. Cellular financier Murray says recent news of an IBM chip that lets wireless devices work with several types of networks makes that possibility even more likely. "It will allow you to sit down in an airport or a coffee shop with one of these devices and talk on it just like a cell phone," Murray says, "then jump frequencies and act like a Wi-Fi computer."
Entrepreneurs who are traveling with several thousand dollars worth of business electronics are also enabling thieves. Nearly 600,000 laptops were stolen in 2001, a 53 percent increase from the previous year, according to Safeware, a firm that sells insurance to protect PCs, PDAs and pe-ripherals.
Policies to protect your laptop from theft can be bought for annual premiums starting at $69. Other policies for busi-nesses and homeowners will also cover property that is stolen while traveling. Likewise, some warranties will cover repair or replacement caused by damage, although warranties will probably exclude circuit boards fried by power surges and laptops damaged after being dropped. That's important because accidental damage is more than twice as likely to occur as theft, according to Safeware's annual survey.
Other than reading the fine print on your insurance policy and warranties, the best thing to do is avoid losing your gear in the first place. Safeware president Donald F. Strejeck says you should place your laptop in an inconspicuous carrying bag before leaving on a business trip. "A lot of computer bags say IBM or Dell on them," Strejeck says. "Use something that's not so obvious."
Your first stop is probably the most dangerous.Strejeck says airports are likely places to lose your laptop. "If you're using a laptop in airports, keep an eye on it," he says. Keep your guard up after you arrive in your hotel. "Never leave it in plain sight," Strejeck says. "Hide it in a drawer or put it in the safe."
Anti-theft security devices such as locking cables are inexpensive ways to physically secure a laptop to a desk or other hefty object. You can also purchase and install software that sends a signal to a tracking service when a laptop is used to access the Internet or connected to a phone line. If the laptop has been stolen, the monitoring center can determine its location using the phone number or Internet address it is using, helping authorities recover the missing equipment.
In one sense, the mobile business toolkit appears to have come full circle, from being something few other businesspeople even recognize to being a popular target for common thieves. But it is probably more accurate to say that technology for mobile entrepreneurs has just begun an ascent to unforeseeable levels of sophistication, power and convenience. We may someday be able to carry one tiny, long-lived device that gives us easy and instant command over all the information and communication we need. Or we may just continue to accumulate more and more pieces of equipment. One thing is sure: If the technology exists for you to be more effective as a mobile entrepreneur, somebody else will have it before long, and then you'll be expected to as well.
Product Charts: Cell Phones, Mobile Software and Laptops
All information current as of October, 2002.
Profiles of Mobile Entrepreneurs
Check out what's in this entrepreneur's suitcase.
Diahann W. Lassus makes networking a priority-even if that means leaving town to attend a conference or board meeting. In fact, her affiliations with state and national business associations have made Lassus a regular road warrior. These days, she spends about 30 to 50 percent of her time out of the office meeting with clients and prospects, making professional connections, and speaking to audiences on subjects such as wealth management and women-owned businesses.
Lassus does all this and more as president and co-founder of Lassus Wherley & Associates PC, a wealth management firm in New Providence, New Jersey, that has a branch office in Naples, Florida. With sales exceeding $1 million and clients in 15 states and several countries, Lassus business has certainly given her a lot of practice running a business from a suitcase.
To keep appointments organized, Lassus relies on a cell phone, a Compaq iPaq, an IBM ThinkPad laptop and an Infocus LP projector. Says Lassus of her mobile arsenal, "[It] allows me to control my time effectively."
She connects with clients and family members with her cell phone, but also uses it to check "what the market is doing," she says. The iPaq is used for short day trips to handle e-mails and review files. It's all possible, Lassus says, because she can store so much information on the 2GB storage card she uses with her iPaq. "I can get a lot of work done on the two-hour train ride to DC from New Jersey without having to carry my ThinkPad," she says.
Of course, she does power up her laptop on longer trips, using it to read, send and respond to e-mails. She also uses it to show presentations with the Infocus LP. In fact, the laptop offers so much storage that it holds a copy of her entire investment software package, complete with her client files, so she can access it on the plane.
Where would this globe-trotter be without his mobile tools?
Truth be told, Mario Espino is hard to pin down. As founder of TotalCare Staffing Services LLC, a staffing business specializing in placing qualified nurses from other countries into U.S. hospitals, he's frequently on the go. Typically, he travels from his company's U.S. headquarters in Coral Gables, Florida, to its world headquarters in Manila, Philippines. He also visits independent contractors in Australia, Canada, India, Italy, Singapore, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Without mobile technology, Espino would never be able to maintain his globe-trotting schedule.
In fact, it's the only way he can stay in contact with his offices, contractors, employees and clients-such as hospitals or health-care facilities-and meet with nurses. His tool of choice? A Sony VAIO laptop, used for presentations and handling e-mail. "[It's] my office," says Espino. "It's my only computer." He also uses a CardScan business card scanner from Corex Technologies; it scans business cards from contacts he's met on the road into his Microsoft Outlook contact management system housed in his laptop.
Espino also uses three phones: A GSM triband cell phone that allows him to communicate with people worldwide and also connect with his laptop so he can respond to e-mails; a satellite phone that's used for emergencies, such as when he travels to areas where it's difficult to get a cell phone connection; and a third phone that he uses strictly in the Philippines. "My triband cell phone bill is about $2,000 to $2,500 per month," he says.
Then there's the BlackBerry PDA, which Espino relies on to send and receive e-mails wirelessly, and a personal contact management tool from Handspring. "I rely on my mobile and wireless tools every day," says Espino, whose company posted sales of $1 million last year. "I wouldn't have a business without them."
Lock n' Walk: Carry sensitive data with the ThumbDrive Touch, a portable yet secure storage drive, which holds data only you can access. Every time you plug the drive into your laptop's USB port, its biometric fingerprint recognition system verifies your identity before you view the files.
Street Price: $229
Speak Up! Still haven't mastered thumb-typing? With MobiVoice, an attachment device for your BlackBerry, you don't have to-it lets you send voice e-mail messages without having to hunt and peck. And thanks to 100:1 voice-compression software, your recipients won't get slowed down by huge files. You can record over 300 minutes of voice messages for recipients, but they'll need CYBIT's free, downloadable software to hear them.
Street price: $95.50
Camera Sly: Snapping pictures during your next business trip is a breeze with the DSC-P9 digital camera. The tiny camera stores pictures on a 128MB Memory Stick, and images can be transferred to Sony's portable digital photo printer, the DPP-MP1. The borderless, full-color photos it generates are beauties to behold.
DSC-P9 and DPP-MP1
Street Prices: $600 (camera) $280 (printer)
Show Off: Put a little pizzazz in your next presentation with Dell's 3100MP projector. Easy to use and set up, this 3.5-pound, 2.2-inch-thin projector comes bundled with a carrying case and a remote control. With 1027x768 XGA resolution and 1050 ANSI lumens of brightness, you can be sure any presentation you give will be crisp. Featuring durable magnesium casing, it will withstand life on the road.
Street Prices: $2,499