By Daniel Casciato
Uber-mobile bedouins rely on Wi-Fi to get their work done. Here, we share a comprehensive list of their favorite tools–from software to laptops and accessories–for working from public hotspots.
As a freelance Web designer who runs ClickNathan.com, Nathan Swartz’s laptop is his office and his workplace is local cafés. Mobile workers like Swartz, known as “bedouins,”—named after nomadic Arabs who wander from place to place in the desert—use café-based and other public hotspots to operate their businesses.
Swartz has been a bedouin for nearly two years, often working from cafés in Pittsburgh’s tony east end neighborhoods. It’s a lifestyle that many are turning to, says Swartz, because bedouins have all the tools necessary to run their professional lives from anywhere.
If you want your local Starbucks to become your new workplace, nothing is more important than having the right “tools of the trade” at your fingertips. You just need the proper devices, applications, and even the right accessories, like a sturdy bag.
The right device
With more places adding hotspots, only one tool is necessary, says Joe Polk, a senior technical specialist with PENNTAP, a technical assistance program that provides free assistance to companies within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
“All you really need is a laptop,” said Polk, who works with some clients who are bedouins. “When you’re thinking about a laptop, you need to think about how portable you are. People tend to sacrifice size and weight for functionality, like a wider monitor, a numbered keypad, or an optical drive. Someone like me will take the middle ground. I travel and take my Dell Latitude D820 everywhere, but I don’t do it that often where I worry about the weight, nor do I care about a massive screen.”
If your business takes you to different client sites, you should always know where the closest Wi-Fi hotspot is, adds Polk.
“When I have time in between client meetings, I may grab lunch or coffee at a place that has Wi-Fi so I can check my e-mail or do research before going to my next meeting,” he said. “So always plan ahead and map out your day if you’re traveling to different locations.”
While laptops are more commonly associated with portable productivity, the smartphone–like Apple’s sleek iPhone and or RIM’s BlackBerry—is another weapon of choice for bedouins because it’s lightweight and has longer battery endurance. Andy Abramson, president of marketing communications agency, Comunicano, and one of the world’s first bedouins, warns not to confuse lifestyle devices with useful business devices.
“The iPhone is a very nice lifestyle device,” said Abramson, who also writes two blogs, Working Anywhere and VoIPWatch. “It looks good, has a great interface, and lets you receive e-mails. However, you won’t write a tight memo of more than a few lines given the iPhone’s interface. It’s just not convenient to type on. Yes, you can bang out some fast notes, but it’s really just glorified SMS. It’s a useful lifestyle device over the weekend.”
Abramson says that an iPhone doesn’t replace a smartphone–such as a Nokia E61i, a Nokia E90, or Blackberry Curve—for business owners.
“A smartphone is a business device,” he said. “They are easy to compose your thoughts on, you can quickly get access to your e-mail, and if it’s on the right network, you can browse the Web. A smartphone is a business essential.”
The key to devices is what’s right for you, says Laura Merritt, spokesperson for Verizon Wireless for the Ohio/Pennsylvania region.
“It depends on how you plan to use the device, whether it’s a phone, PDA, smartphone, or Wi-Fi-enabled devices,” she said. “Recognizing that everyone has different needs, we take a consultative approach in helping customers find the right solution.”
Merritt advises test-driving any device first.
“We always let our customers try our devices,” she said. “If you don’t like it or it doesn’t support what you need to do, you can return it within 30 days and try something else. We’re sure you’ll find something. We support Wi-Fi with some of our devices. But if you can’t connect to a hotspot, our EVDO technology allows you to have an alternative to make sure you’re connected.”
With new devices frequently penetrating the marketplace, Abramson says to buy what you like.
“There’s something new every month,” he said. “You have to buy what you like and when you find something that you like, use it until what can really replace it comes along. Because what you’ll find is that if you jump to the next thing because it’s the hot flavor of the month, it’s not going to satisfy you.”
Bedouins also have to decide which applications are right for their devices.
“Can you open up a Word document, can you read an Excel spreadsheet, and can you look at an Adobe .pdf?” asked Abramson. “Once you make those decisions, then you can decide which device is best for you. I would contend that there’s no one device perfect for everybody. But there are devices that are better for like-minded people. It all depends what segment you fall into. What may be good for an accountant may not be good for a lawyer.”
When Dave Tremel, president of Cranberry Technology Solutions in Cranberry Township, PA, is on the road, there are a few applications he has found useful.
“With my Mac, I use Spanning Sync to sync iCal with Google Calendar,” said Tremel.”I can update and check my calendar using Google Calendar while on the road. For storage, I use Amazon S3 because it makes it easier to access files. This way, I don’t have to have everything I need with me and know I can still get to it. Amazon doesn’t provide a direct interface to S3 so for that I use Jungle Disk.”
Also, if you have a USB drive and don’t want to take your computer with you, Tremel says that Portable Apps allows you to take your applications and data wherever you go.
“All you need is access to a computer, all of the applications run from the USB drive,” he said. “The applications need to be configured, but once this is done you plug your drive in and you have everything you need. There is also a version of Jungle Disk, which runs from USB drives.”
Phone services and VoIP
Greg Kalish, a PR consultant from White Plains, NY, spends half his week working out of bedouin havens like Starbucks, Cosi, Borders, and Barnes & Noble, using his T-Mobile and Boingo accounts. His essential items are a laptop, Blackberry Curve, extra laptop battery, an extension cord for his power cord, wireless mouse, and a Bluetooth earpiece.
He also raves about Spinvox, a voicemail-to-text service that converts voice to text and allows users to receive their voicemail messages in text form as SMS and e-mail.
“This is ideal for when I’m in a crowded place and where all the background noise makes it difficult to hear a voicemail message the traditional way,” he said. “I can respond to spoken voice messages by text. Plus, it allows me to have a written record of all my voicemails so I don’t have to listen to a message multiple times to catch a name or number.”
Although, Kalish uses T-Mobile frequently, he buys Boingo day passes where T-Mobile isn’t available.
“Boingo seems to be more much widely available at airports and overseas,” said Kalish. “It’s saved me money when traveling overseas. I have used Boingo several times in London to connect to a Wi-Fi network and then use my Vonage V-Phone to make VoIP calls. I’ve probably saved thousands of dollars in international roaming fees had those same calls been made from my cell phone.”
For VoIP calls, Abramson prefers Truphone.
“I can call in to any user who has a Truphone account for free,” he said. “I can make calls all over the place for free or at low cost. I can make calls back and forth to the states using the Truphone service without using roaming minutes and the call quality is great.”
Other necessary items for a bedouin include an extra laptop battery, extra batteries for other powered devices (like a wireless mouse), an “air” card (for those times when Wi-Fi just isn’t working), an extension cord, blank CDs or DVDs for your burner, inexpensive thumb drives (for sharing/giving away), un-powered USB hub, and earphones.
The most essential item for Eamonn Carey (right), who runs Random Thoughts Media, a mobile and online video production company and Fanscast.tv, is simply a laptop with good battery life.
“Some cafes make your life difficult by providing only one or two power points for customer use,” said Carey from Dublin, Ireland, who has spoken at conferences and trade shows about bedouins. “A fully charged cell phone also helps. I use a Nokia N95, mainly because I work in digital media and can use it to record video, audio clips, and high quality photos. Most of my e-mail comes through a Google Apps account, which I access from Gmail for Mobile, so even if I’m on the train or away from my regular hotspots, I can still access email. Plus, it has a built-in radio to keep me entertained where necessary.”
Carey also recommends buying a good pair of earphones.
“I have a pair of Bose in-ear headphones for watching any video content I receive during the day,” he said. “Also, if you’re in a particularly busy cafe, it’s nicer to listen to music on your laptop than it is to listen to the seventeen conversations happening around you. Better earphones don’t bleed as much, so the people around you aren’t going to have to listen to a hiss coming from your ears once you go past a certain volume.”
Abramson likes a new brand called Iqua SUN.
“A great earphone is important but the challenge is that the headset’s battery runs out,” he said. “SUN is solar-powered and environmentally-friendly. Because it works off solar power, you can charge it under a light or when you’re out and about. As long as you’re working in sunlight or under light, it recharges automatically.”
A good bag is another essential item for mobile workers, says Gwen Harrison, who runs Florida-based Advanced Virtual Services, a virtual assistance business, and can often be found at local cafes about twice a week.
“I had a few different laptop cases, but finally splurged and bought a Samsonite rolling laptop case,” she said. “I really enjoy it because sometimes I need to take a bunch of files with me. The over-the-shoulder cases don’t have much room, but this one has plenty of room and I don’t have to sling it over my shoulder.”
Carey and Abramson agree that the right bag is important.
“Given that your laptop is effectively your office when you work like this, you need something that will protect it in the event of everything from heavy rain to occasional clumsy drops,” said Carey. “Chances are, you’re going to be lugging your laptop, a notebook, a charger, and several other items around with you every day, and if, like me, you tend to walk or use public transport rather than driving, it can get a bit heavy after awhile.”
Abramson likes the Waterfield line at SFBags.com.
“I like Waterfield bags because they’re light, sturdy—they use parachute release hooks, and have springy shoulder straps,” he said. “I also like the line from Crumpler.”
Finally, don’t forget the shoes. Carey recommends sneakers.
“Because I try not to drive, and walk as much as possible, comfortable shoes are a must,” he said. “I wear sneakers quite a lot, and I think I get away with it at this point. If I’m meeting VCs, accountants, or lawyers, I’ll put on my suit and make more of an effort to look like a businessman, but on any regular day, I’m more likely to be dressed casually.”