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Personal Toolkit: Knowledge to go

By Steve Barth

It’s been five years now that I’ve been basing my own knowledge work off of state-of-the-art 3-pound laptops. Before that, of course, I used laptops, too. (My first, a 12-pound Kaypro 2000 8088 DOS portable, survived a 100-mph collision in Australia. I wrote several travel books on a 1-pound Poget PC 286 DOS palmtop, sometimes by headlamp sitting out Hawaiian rainstorms in my tent.) But in 1998, entrepreneurial importers began offering high-end models straight from Japan that delivered Pentium-strength productivity in packages that I could always have at hand, with little more effort than carrying a PDA.

Despite their James Bond appeal, those Japanese imports were slow to win converts because they didn’t have the power, peripherals or support of their shoulder-wrenching cousins. Since then, however, such ultralights have gradually won acceptance. Sony, Sharp Toshiba, and others sell and support domestic versions, while IBM has convinced IT managers that truly portable computers have a place in their fleets.

Portable infrastructure

As time goes on, ultralights get more powerful in terms of processors, memory, battery life, screen quality and connectivity. It’s not that they are matching the specs of larger laptops or desktops. But they are keeping up with the demands of the applications knowledge workers use, such as those reviewed in this column. That’s important, because personal knowledge management tools, such as indexers, voice recognition and peer-to-peer collaboration can require a lot of memory and processing power.

For this column, I looked at the latest models from two ultralight vendors, Sharp and IBM. Both ran Windows XP and featured Mobile Pentium III processors, 40-GB hard drives, 12.1-inch screens, serviceable keyboards and built-in wireless, Ethernet and modem connectivity, as well as FireWire, USB 2.0, PCMCIA and compact flash slots. The CF slots are useful, because they accommodate additional devices such as Bluetooth adapters or high-capacity (soon up to 6-GB) memory cards for backing up your files. Both units also support external video—useful for presentations on the road and better viewing at your desk.

Sharp’s laptops have always carried a strange liability. Less than an inch thick and just a hair over three pounds heavy, their slender alloy forms constantly oblige the user to stop working and answer questions. The latest of Sharp’s full featured ultralights, the UM32 is no different. Inside the thin silver casing is a bright, high-contract screen and a sensitive keyboard that rises out of the chassis as you lift the lid. Underneath, it has a 1-GHz Pentium III-M processor and up to 512 MB of memory. Ultralights tend to forgo the floppy or CD drives, but the UM32 includes a small, self-powered external CD drive and a USB floppy is available.

In tests of wired and wireless capability, and running applications such as voice recognition, the Sharp handled every task admirably. Its lightweight, slender form and international power supply made it easy to remain productive on a recent trip to Asia. The main tradeoffs for the UM32 are only two hours of operation on the internal battery, and the need to use an adapter to plug in printer or monitor cables. IBM’s X line is a half-pound heavier, a half-inch thicker and its utilitarian designs won’t start conversations. But the latest, the X31, adds new features and proprietary diagnostic, update and security additions that make it a reliable workhorse with maximum utility. For top performance under its titanium cover, options include a 1.4-GB PIIIM and up to 1280 MB of memory. Yet the X31 will still get more than 4.5 hours of life out of its internal battery. Both screen and keyboard are much improved and now rival any competitor. A smaller but stubbier footprint means more ports can line the back edge, including a parallel printer and monitor ports.

The X31 handled every application it loaded, including creating broadcasts with Visual Communicator (see Personal Toolkit February 2003). Like the Sharp, it has a power supply that works internationally. But as I discovered on a recent trip with stops in the United States and Canada, one advantage of IBM laptops is that, when you forget to bring your adapter, there’s always another ThinkPad user around and adapters fit every model.

The real point is about using these laptops as a platform for personal knowledge management systems, because a.) we are on the road all the time, and b.) the power and capacity of these machines now makes is possible. I can store 17 years' worth of documents, research, notes, correspondence and contacts in a searchable archive, using powerful tools for all of my PKM processes.

Portable content

To me, personal knowledge management includes taking responsibility for what you know—and need to know. But one of the hardest things these days is finding time to keep up with new information and ideas. For those of us who spend hours in the car commuting every day, there is a way to turn aggravating drive time into relaxing learning time.

It isn’t that you can’t be productive in the car. You can make calls to maintain your network and share knowledge. You can listen to books on tape or news on the radio. Or you might best use the time to space out and reflect on the day--between honks.

But a company called MobileBriefs is a Web-based service that delivers custom content in “Personalized Audio Broadcasts.” For a subscription of $19.95 per month or $195 per year, you can tailor your daily briefing according to your job and industry. The service offers news from leading industry publications and national business sources. They also offer summaries of more than 700 business books. You don’t have to listen in your car. The items can be streamed on your desktop over a broadband or dial-up connection. But they can also be downloaded in a variety of digital audio formats to listen to at the right time--including burning a quick CD for portability. I used the service by downloading in MP3 format, with the option of plugging my player into the car stereo with one of those adapters that plays any source through the tape deck.

You personalize the service by profiling your interests, but also by telling the Web site how long your commute is. The service then blends and builds a customized audio program to the specified length. Some of the people who read the material are better than others and some of the source books are better than others, but the format makes it easy to skip to the next file. I found it hard to concentrate on the readings if I was doing anything else requiring attention. But sitting in traffic, riding a train or walking along the sidewalk were perfect opportunities. A nice feature is the ability to download or print the original text of the article or summary.

Steve Barth will lead the workshop, “The Deep End: Integrating Personal and Organizational Values and Tools for Sustainable Transformation,” with Dinesh Chandra at KMWorld & Intranets 2003 in Santa Clara, Calif. The workshop on Oct. 13 will explore how teams, networks and markets are consequences of individual values and behaviors that determine the emergent properties of the group.

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