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Personal Toolkit: Listening to the voices in your head

By Steve Barth

I ran into a lot of trouble last year on a KM panel when I was asked if I had a favorite decision support tool and I held up my mobile phone. Like many knowledge workers, especially free agents, my portable number is my main point of contact. And working with a global network of colleagues and clients while traveling constantly myself, it has proven valuable (though expensive) to be accessible any time, anywhere.

So I've written here before about the critical importance of being plugged into your professional networks. Many current phone models can also act as gateways to the Internet for e-mail, IM and Web browsing. With a tri-band GSM phone, those capabilities--plus voice, of course--are available in more than 100 countries around the world. Just last month, for example, while in the U.K. for meetings, those functions proved to be much more reliable ways to stay connected than the dial-up and Wi-Fi options on my laptop. (In fact, while touring the Yorkshire Dales on the weekend, I was actually able to read the Sunday Seattle Times on my PDA from inside the tent of my riverside campsite.)

However, knowledge sharing requires real conversations, not just text messages. When a colleague or I need to tap the network to run through an idea or get some perspective and feedback, it's often a spontaneous need that can't wait and demands the full bandwidth and subtle nuance of voice communication.

Of course, the portability of mobile phones can be more than a convenience--it can be a downright nuisance. In fact, trying to take a call while driving can even be a crime in many states. Hence the current prevalence of the black wires dangling from so many fashion-conscious knowledge workers.

For the last few months, I've been trying a sampling of cordless headpieces using Bluetooth wireless connections. Bluetooth is a radio frequency technology designed to enable what are sometimes called "personal area networks." Rather than a replacement for other wireless networks, it is a short-range replacement for the wires, such as serial or USB cables, that would ordinarily have to connect devices and their peripherals. For example, Bluetooth chips in my laptop and PDA allow either one to connect with my mobile phone. Bluetooth headsets, which were just rumors or unusable first attempts as recently as a year ago, are commonplace today. Dozens of models are now available from phone manufacturers and third-party accessorizers. They will let you wander up to 30 feet (10m) from your mobile phone--although in practice, it's likely to be in your briefcase, pocket or passenger seat.

These earpieces will differ in design, quality, comfort and convenience. But in terms of functionality, they are very similar because they conform to the Bluetooth standard for headsets. By and large, for example, they will all let you receive calls just by touching a button on the earpiece. If your phone offers voice control for dialing and other commands, you can initiate those from the earpiece, too. Each will have volume controls and some have a separate mute button.

The main differences between Bluetooth headsets, then, come from their design and the resulting sound quality and physical comfort. They will differ in the method of pairing--the one-time process of matching a phone to a headset. They will have different mechanisms for turning the headset on and off, which turns out to be important because it can be much too easy to accidentally initiate a call when inadvertently bumping the headset in your pocket.

Finally, they will differ in terms of how much talk time (and standby time) they have before recharging, but overall, this capacity is improving greatly. All of the units I tested met their advertised capacities.

I looked at three models ... from Ericsson, Plantronics and Cardo. I wish I could say I have a clear-cut recommendation for the best headset, but evaluating them turned out to be largely about personal preferences. I can report all of them offered enough convenience over wired earpieces that I'll never go back.

The Ericsson HBH-35 had the best sound of all the units I tested. That wasn't just my opinion; it was the consensus of the people with whom I used the headsets to speak. It features a noise-canceling microphone on a fairly long boom. Although it's the biggest of the units I tested, it wasn't uncomfortable because the weight of the battery is behind the ear. For me the HBH-35 had the additional advantage of charging off the same Ericsson adapters I use for my phone itself--not just the original power supply but also the travel adapters I've mentioned before. The Ericsson claims up to five hours talk time (125 hours standby).

Cardo's Allways was the most comfortable for me. It has a wide case but lies fairly flat against the ear, with interchangeable coverplates that create a large button for initiating calls, answering and hanging up. While the sound quality wasn't the best, it's the only one with an alternative mounting that hangs on the frame of your eyeglasses, rather than on your ear. I got up to 6.5 hours talk time (200 hours standby).

The Plantronics M3000 was ultimately my personal favorite. The sound quality was decent, thanks to a noise-canceling mic. But it's best feature was its relatively small size, making it less of a nuisance when it wasn't on my ear and less of a conversation piece (so to speak) when it was. (The company has since released a version with digital signal processing, the M3500.) I got up to 8 hours of talk and up to 200 hours of standby time.

If your phone doesn't come with Bluetooth, fear not. A number of manufacturers offer adapters that plug into the phone's earpiece jack. Cardo's adapter, for example, fits any standard 2.5mm jack, or many Nokia models with included connectors. The adaptor itself is a slim oval measuring about 1.5 in. by 2.5 in. Designed to attach by Velcro to the back of the phone, it only weighs about two-thirds of an ounce.

To be sure, these Bluetooth headsets are conveniences, rather than enablers of long-distance knowledge sharing. But it's not a trivial thing to preserve the comfortable intimacy of conversations.

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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