Hot desking, virtual meetings and working on the move are all concepts that are going to radically change how we earn our livings.
Advances in mobile technology are driving this transformation in our working lives as PDAs and smartphones meld together, notebook PCs become smaller and more powerful and, with WiMax just around the corner, super fast access to the internet becoming available to anyone anywhere.
On a practical level, is it possible to become a digital nomad and work wherever you happen to lay your notebook PC? We take a close look at the latest mobile technologies, but more importantly, we'll also show how the best of them can finally deliver the mobile computing experience that we've all been waiting for
The road warrior's armory
Yesterday's road warrior was armed with a notebook PC, mobile phone, PDA and a bag full of peripherals. Today you can work with a device that can easily fit into your pocket. And you don't need to wait for the release of MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices) to be fully enabled for mobile computing. Just your trusty PDA and an internet connection could be enough for your needs.
PDAs may soon be threatened by larger, more powerful MIDs, but they still have the advantage of size and long battery lives to beat. The mobile in your pocket may be primarily for voice calls and text messaging, but it can do much more.
The evolution of the mobile phone as a data device has not yet been perfected, but the technology available for purchase today promises to finally deliver the Holy Grail of a portable and usable multimedia device.
Take the Nokia N series, for instance. Not much to shout about at first glance, perhaps, but look a little deeper and you'll see a powerful communications device that happens to also let you make calls. The latest E71 handset could become the heart of your digital life. Full sat-nav capability plus high-speed HSDPA connection means that it is a viable alternative to the Blackberry.
Apple clearly has its sights on the business market. Some high profile business users have embraced the latest 3G iPhone now that it supports Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync to deliver the essential push email that business users demand. Whether Apple can unseat the dominant Blackberry remains to be seen.
Desktop power in your pocket
MIDs that actually deliver your desktop PC's power and capability in an ultra-portable device are just around the corner, but for now the recent rash of small form factor PCs offer a halfway house. The Asus range started the ball rolling, and now the Acer Inspire One costs only £200 if you're happy to run Linux and not Windows. If you need Windows then take a look at the HP Mini-Note, but watch out for its battery life.
The arrival of Intel's Atom processor has enabled manufacturers to develop compact notebooks that deliver all the computing power you need to work on the move packaged in a diminutive shell. This makes these devices into 'go-anywhere workstations', as long as you don't want to do processor intensive tasks.
Throw in one of the mobile broadband dongles that are now available on every network and you suddenly have a powerful mobile office with few compromises on power, applications and mobility. However, be careful which network provider you choose and be prepared for long contracts and a wide variety of costs per megabyte if you go over your monthly limit. And try to stay in the 3G data cloud when you can.
Connection speeds in a GPRS zone can be as low as 200Kbps, making web access a retro dial-up experience. If you intend to use your dongle to make VoIP calls, check your user agreement before you sign. Some networks won't allow this on cheaper tariffs.
One of the driving factors behind the development of mobile technologies is the delivery of services. We all access information on a daily basis almost unconsciously at work and at home. Digital television and broadband internet services have delivered seamless integration that we now take for granted. Missed Lost on telly? Buy it on iTunes and watch it on a widescreen phone.
You can even set your Sky+ box via your handset with Remote Record if you forget to record something of interest. This type of integration illustrates how automation and the machine-to-machine interface has evolved to give you greater control over your digital life.
These services are tethered to a satellite receiver box or a fixed landline phone cable. However, that physical tether is becoming less restricting, sometimes being replaced with mobile wireless services. For example, British Airways has recently overhauled its mobile service to enhance how passengers can interact with the company.
It's now possible to be updated via SMS on the weather, any potential delays and if your flight has been moved to another terminal. Mobile technology now enables you to remain closely connected to the service that you have purchased.
BT hasn't been dragging its heels, either. BT's Broadband Anytime package is the first integrated service platform that anyone can join right now. A VoIP handset and BT's ToGo Blackberry-like mobile phone seamlessly meld together. You can start composing an email on your desktop PC and complete it in a taxi, coffee shop or airport on the ToGo handset.
Mobile access is via BT's 82,000 wireless hotspots, and when you're out of range of a hotspot, the handset defaults to GSM for voice calls and GPRS for data. If your mobile handset is ageing and you happen to be a BT Broadband Anywhere customer, the ToGo handset is free and provides a leap forward that might just surprise you.
If you run Windows Mobile 6, the interface is familiar – ushering you effortlessly into mobile working.
Here comes WiMax (at last!)
In the new connected world, you become the hub around which data orbits. WiMax service providers like Freedom4 – the rebranded Pipex Wireless business – and Urban WiMax will roll out high-speed 802.16d wireless broadband access to customers this year.
WiMax is often described as Wi-Fi on steroids, and it will offer SDSL (Symmetrical Digital Subscriber Line) to business users, who will be the focus for the services, which require no line subscription or coaxial or optical fibre infrastructure.
Once the WiMax signal detector is connected to your PC, you're instantly online at asymmetrical speeds of up to 1Mbps. For the nomadic worker, the introduction of WiMax should mean that wireless hotspots become a thing of the past. Everywhere will be within the wireless data cloud, even those remote areas that have consistently been a problem for mobile workers.
The WiMax Forum stuck its neck out earlier this year and announced that it projects more than 133 million people to use WiMax globally by 2012. "WiMax is here now and is the catalyst in the global marketplace to grow demand for mobile broadband Internet access," said Ron Resnick, President of the WiMax Forum.
"This new subscriber and user forecast is a solid proof point of the future growth of the thriving mobile Internet ecosystem and presents reasonable predictions of the positive progress our industry is working to achieve."
If WiMax delivers, decentralised work practices will become the norm. The mobile office is reality for a minority now, but by the London Olympics nomadic working will be the norm for millions of Britons.
Essential kit for the road warrior
Google Docs offers a suite of applications that won't win any prizes for cutting-edge features, but are more than adequate for most users' everyday needs.
The tools that we all need to become digital nomads are finally slotting into place, but perhaps it's not a lack of tools that's preventing us moving our work from our desktop and into the cloud. Perhaps we need a widespread change in attitude to the data that we create and the access that we need to the information sphere we all inhabit in order for the migration to take place.
Protopage gives you a web page that can contain a wide range of information including news feeds and links. Getting feedback on a piece of work is also now possible with Backboard, and RIAs (Rich Internet Applications) are helping to break down the barriers between the webtop and the PC desktop.
If you don't want to rely on 'webtop' apps, you can take your favourite programs and their associated data with you. PortableApps is a selection of applications that run from any USB memory stick, and moving the OpenOffice suite of apps – which has developed into a formidable challenge to Microsoft's dominance of the office software market – is both fast and easy.
Corsair's 32GB Flash Survivor offers bombproof storage for your apps and data that you can take with you on the road. USB sticks can also be made smarter. U3 includes a Windows Launchpad that gives you much more control over programs and data on the stick.
Ceedo is another virtualisation system for your USB stick, and it offers varieties for enterprise and personal users.
What these technologies essentially enable you to do is throw off the straitjacket of smaller mobile device capacities. The Internet has become the growth medium that has allowed these technologies to develop.
Its common interface, OS neutrality, infinite adaptability and ability for perpetual upgrades means that it is now a familiar working environment for millions of people.
Death of the desktop
Traditional methods of funding application purchasing are changing. Applications on the webtop are free and are offering what Tim O'Reilly – the founder of O'Reilly Media who is credited with coining the term 'Web 2.0' – calls 'perpetual upgrades'. New features simply appear the next time you log on to these webtop services.
The effect of this perpetual upgrade system is that traditional boxed software is now giving way to subscription-based models. The news earlier this year that the mighty Microsoft was to offer a subscription offer for its Office application suite wasn't really a shock. Instead, it was simply an inevitable consequence of the webtop march.
Codenamed 'Albany', this is how Microsoft's all-you-can-eat subscription package is described by Group Product Manager Bryson Gordon: "We asked consumers what they needed and wanted most on their PC, and the overwhelming response was that they primarily want productivity and security software.
Consumers also expressed frustration at having to spend time and effort installing different types of software, keeping current on new versions and getting the software set up on their computers.
"We're just making it really convenient and painless for consumers to get up and running in just a few mouse-clicks with the best-in- class Microsoft Office suite that they love, and software and services that they've told us are indispensable to getting the most out of their PC, while staying up to date with the latest versions of their software without having to purchase subsequent versions."
The end of Windows?
So what will happen to the desktop OS? Over the last couple of years, blogs and newsgroups have grappled with the idea that a Google OS could be the next logical step towards the complete webtop. This may be some way off; the search giant is only just taking its first steps into the mobile data market with its Android development platform.
However, for most PC users, its the evolution of Windows that is of the most interest and importance to their daily lives. The news that Microsoft is deciding what the computing landscape will look like post-Windows illustrates the impact that the Internet is having on the computing industry as well as its influence on the increasingly mobile nature of work and leisure.
Midori is Microsoft's answer to the increasingly anachronistic Windows approach to desktop operating systems. The evolution of Windows is moving away from its desktop foundation and onto more virtual systems. This is a reaction to the move of Microsoft's core users away from locally installed applications and towards the webtop.
Midori has evolved from Microsoft's Singularity research. As users move across a number of digital devices, the legacy system that Windows still contains is simply inadequate to cope with this kind of migration.
Users want seamless transitions from desktop, to web, to mobile device and back again. It's hoped that Midori will deliver that versatility and provide users with an OS that is able to cope with the demands of a webtop lifestyle.
Accessing data on the move is now a reality for both work and leisure. Whether you want to find out if any of your friends are in the same shopping mall as you (the iPhone's GPS and mapping capabilities allow this kind of personalised tracking) or need to keep track of business emails when you're away from your desk, mobile technology available for you to buy today can deliver all this and more.
Becoming a worker on the move is now practical for everyone, and things are only going to get better for us digital nomads.
First published in PC Plus, Issue 275