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Personal toolkit: Anytime, anywhere productivity

By Steve Barth

Think about where and when knowledge work happens for you. It's almost never in the office. In the past weeks, for example, I found myself tapping a PowerPoint outline into my PDA at 36,000 feet while other passengers slept on a transpacific flight, editing hard copy of an article while in a hammock in the rainforests of Borneo, and reading e-mail and enjoying hot noodles and a cold beer in one of the Internet cafes in the old quarter of Hanoi.

The reading, thinking, meeting, problem solving and writing that comprise so much of our value usually happen on the go in temporary or transient venues.How much of your productivity happens at home or in other people's offices? Or in restaurants, cars, hotels, airport terminals? Now think about the specifics about what kind of work you do best in each of these venues. In my own case, I find the office is best for playing, planning and networking with colleagues, planes are ideal for reading and reflecting, and coffee houses are often the most productive places for me to write or edit.

Device platforms

To make mobile knowledge work both more efficient and more effective, it's important to distinguish between productivity platforms and access platforms. The difference is the amount of information creation and manipulation that can be done, as opposed to just finding, viewing and responding to information prepared elsewhere.

Consider three overlapping but distinct categories and their most primary requirements:

  • Productivity when using office suites, PIM and enterprise applications puts the emphasis on interface functionality and processing power. (Laptops);

  • Web browsing for research and learning requires a visually oriented interface and increasing bandwidth. (Tablet PCs);

  • Network sccess for e-mail and data synchronization needs a minimum bandwidth but maximum connectivity. (PDAs, handhelds, phones);

Laptops now offer desktop performance in ultralight productivity packages. PDAs are increasingly powerful but will always be awkward for anything but accessing information and making minor changes to it. Tablet PCs, which behave like a PC on the desk and like a large-screened handheld on the go, may offer a compromise but the category is too new to predict its success.

Connectivity platforms

Connectivity to devices also must be considered on three levels:

  • Wide area networks give you anytime/anywhere access to the Internet and to secure intranets and extranets for remote access to peripherals, messaging, data and files.;

  • Local area networks give you high bandwidth connections at primary locations to peripherals, messaging, data and files.;

  • Personal area networks, a neglected category, connect personal devices for synchronization of and sharing of features, such as using mobile phone to check e-mail on laptop.;

It is important to keep priorities straight between cutting-edge technologies, personal productivity strategies and practical realities. State-of-the-art is one thing in the laboratory and another in a motel on the interstate. The critical applications you depend on must be designed to operate effectively at the lowest possible bandwidth. And regardless of the broadband and mobile/wireless strategies, nationwide or even global dial-up access must be your basic backstop. Still, just as walls can block wireless access, digital PBX phones can prevent dial-up and security protocols can preclude temporary Web access through a client's network. So multiple redundant access modes are a cheap investment compared to the cost of losing a single customer. I have invested a small fortune in connectivity. I maintain two ISP accounts (both of which can be accessed through the Web), I carry a global cell phone, and supplement my analog modem with Ethernet, Bluetooth, infrared and GPRS. But while analysts like to talk about the challenges of the "last mile," I still have trouble with the last three feet.

Multiple backups

Last November, I wrote the first installment of this column in a hotel room in Berlin. That was a particularly difficult week for mobile productivity. While I was in Germany to cover a conference, I was also juggling projects with clients in Camden, Cambridge, Caracas and Sydney. I had been in the same hotel six months earlier and had no trouble connecting. But while I was gone they installed a digital pbx system, and I didn't have the right cables and my laptop modem seemed to refuse to recognize the local dial tone. What's more, the computers at the research center where I was visiting wouldn't let me log onto my Earthlink account via the Web; I ended up spending about $100 contacting clients with my mobile, promising to send materials soon.

Eventually, I found an all-night Internet center where I could at least read and respond to messsages. But on my last night in Berlin, when I finished the column at about one in the morning, copied it to a floppy, put Miles Davis on my MP3 player and strode down the Kurfurstendam in the rain, I discovered that the fear of lawsuits had forced the Internet center to stop allowing uploads.

I was more prepared for Southeast Asia. On this trip, plugging in was less of a problem than logging on. In Hanoi, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, I was able to purchase local access accounts for a few dollars—much less than my US ISPs would have surcharged me if they had local access numbers. In Singapore, I used a high-speed connection in my hotel room.

Gadget strategies

Although laptops are available with up to P4 mobile processors, other factors have even more to do with portable productivity, such as weight, battery life, instant-on standby, and keyboard and screen quality. And sometimes the best device for mobile knowledge work is not a laptop, but a PDA, mobile phone or even a pen and napkin.This month, let's look at some gadgets that can help you stay connected, productive and balanced on the road. A future column will look more specifically at wireless connectivity.

The Konexx 3.3 oz. Data Port Anywhere ($159) lets you use your analog modem with most office or hotel digital phone systems by connecting to the phone's handset cord. It draws power from a laptop's USB port, so there's no need for batteries or an AC adapter, and it adds two extra USB ports.

You can cut down on weight and bulk with travel accessories that eliminate redundant transformers and loose cables. Distributed by Targus, Comarco's ChargeSource ($120) is a slim 4.5 oz. power adapter that intelligently adjusts itself to both available input and required output for laptops, cell phones, PDAs and other mobile devices. Targus also markets a similar adapter for auto and airplane use. Also available are 6-ft. USB and 20-ft. phone cables in retractable housings, although they seem a little bulkier than need be.

Atek's 1.1 oz. Super Mini Optical Mouse ($50) is another indispensable accessory for anyone who has to do a lot of mousework for graphics or editing while working on a laptop.

Steve Barth writes and speaks frequently about KM, e-mail barth.km@global-insight.com. For more on personal knowledge management, see his Web site global-insight.com

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