Years and years ago, as payment for a consulting job, I got an early NCR laptop. I bought a HUGE briefcase to hold the thing. Ever since then I’ve been on a quest to pack a complete office into a single, easy-to-tote bag. Not a laptop bag or briefcase or tote with wheels and a handle – a simple shoulder or messenger bag. This is how I did it – with some ideas on how you can too.
2) Goals for my “system in a bag”
What I wanted to be able to do was access the web and email from almost anywhere. While I realize this probably doesn’t include the Gobi desert, I wanted to work MOST places where cell phone coverage can be had. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was moving into the “cloud”; I’ve found that I do more and more of my work in web-based applications. The main benefit is the ability to move from computer to computer without having to carry files with me.
Obviously, I need access to files locally – both on a spinning hard drive and on various USB drives. Again the goal – never lose access to files no matter where you are. If I was writing an article and left it on my desktop; forgetting to copy it to a card or memory stick, I was out of luck till I got back home.
My friend Mike James has hammered security into me over the years. If I was access to email or file transfer, it had to be safe and secure. Information needed to be shared as necessary, but at other times files needed to go back and forth securely.
Web access includes access to g-talk from Google as well as the possibility of web-based phone, though I don’t use that yet. I wanted to be able to stay in touch with the world from whatever machine I was on.
I’m trying SO hard to eliminate paper. The PC I’ve chosen has a touch screen, but I’m not fully using it. Documents I use are more and more in PDF, Word, or even Google Doc format. I wanted to reach the point where I didn’t even need to take notes using pen and ink. I’m close, but as you’ll see, there’s still a step further I hope to go.
I’m a ‘sometimes’ speaker and presenter, so I wanted access to PowerPoint if needed. I also wanted to have the ability to make web presentations even if I didn’t have access to laptops, CDs or thumb drives.
Being somewhat paranoid, I want copies of copies of copies of important stuff. Some onsite, some offsite. This solution has to offer ways to save and access files remotely. What else needs to be said? If you’ve ever lost a hard drive, scratched a CD or lost a portable drive or thumb drive, you KNOW the pain of not having a backup.
I chose equipment I could afford that met the criteria of multi-functionality and portability. There are multiple ways to do what I have done with different equipment; I’m simply outlining the categories of equipment and software that will allow you to work anywhere.
UMPC is an acronym for Ultra Mobile PC and stands for any extremely lightweight PC. For that matter, my Palm Treo SmartPhone could count as a UMPC. The point is to have a small, easy-to-carry PC that will function long periods on battery power. Since most of us huddle over a desktop or laptop PC all day, doesn’t it make sense to have one that doesn’t require a separate, heavy-duty wheeled tote to carry around?
The 1610 is a small, light Windows PC with built-in WIFI and a PC card slot which I use for the Verizon mobile broadband card. It also has an SD storage card slot which allows me to interchange the data files in my Treo and Exilim digital camera. The main downside is the smaller keyboard since I have large hands, but I’ve learned to cope.
The 60 GB drive is more than adequate since most of my storage is remote; the extended battery gives me over 3 hours of use. There is no CD drive, but I can copy things to the hard drive or my external 120 GB USB drive. This device is the beginning “platform” on which the overall system is built.
Why a Windows Smartphone? Why not Symian, Palm or Blackberry? Mainly because I’m already comfortable with Windows and, no matter what you think of Microsoft, Windows and Windows Mobile “play well together”. Windows Mobile offers email, Word, Excel and PowerPoint as well as calendaring, contacts, etc. And later you’ll see that I’ve incorporated (free) software that allows me to mostly eliminate handwritten notes.
Palm Treo 750
The Treo has become my “mobile computer” in many ways. It is a bit bulky, but the battery lasts a long time and it’s taken many drops. With a 4 GB SD card (postage-sized card with 4 gigabytes of storage space) installed I have tons of storage space. I have music, podcasts, and books from Audible.com.
The phone has mobile-sync enabled which means that my email is checked automatically and “pushed” to the phone.
An enormously useful tool is having Word Mobile. I can read and edit documents or open text files that I might need. But if I get an idea for a blog post or an article, I can call up Word and thumb-type, then choose “send as email”. The mail client comes up and I choose my Gmail account.
Later, when I check Gmail from a “real” computer, I can choose to open the note “open as Google document” and there it is. This has eliminated handwriting notes – in fact it’s eliminated a LOT of handwriting altogether.
Windows Mobile has Windows Media Player. This means I have all my music and audio on the 4 GB SD card. Combined with a set of Etymotic earphones, Windows Media allows me to listen to music or audiobooks or podcasts anywhere. An additional benefit – if a phone call comes in while I’m listening, WMP pauses and I answer the call. The microphone is active even with the earphones in so I can talk and listen – when the call completes, the music starts back up right where it paused.
Since I have a dataplan from my cell phone carrier, I can access my Google account and use a separate free program called GooSync to sync my Google calendar to my phone. The upshot is that I can make an appointment from any browser using Google Calendar and hit a button on my SmartPhone to show that new event on the phone – and even have it send me reminders!
I started out with a messenger bag, but have graduated to a shoulder laptop. The point here is to have EVERYTHING you need to get work done in one bag. A shoulder backpack has literally become my mobile office holder. I recommend a single sling-type bag or the slightly geekier over the shoulder, plastic clip type that lets you take it off and put it on more easily.
I am currently using a Casio Exilim digital camera for its small size. Again, the key to data portability is the SD storage card. My Fujitsu Lifebook UMPC has an SD card slot so I can copy pictures and videos to the PC and from there upload them to Gspace or Strongspace (more on these later) or simply email them or post them to Facebook.
I did say video; most digital cameras will shoot video. The Exilim, being a little older, shoots AVI (lower resolution) video. Most new cameras shoot MPEG files which are higher resolution.
So keeping a small digital camera has allowed me to catch things I wouldn’t otherwise. It may not seem to be part of an “office”, but since you are mobile it pays to keep a camera for other reasons. The Casio has photography modes that let me shoot up real close so I can take pictures of business cards or handwritten notes on a napkin. Again, the point is to eliminate handwriting as much as possible.
On a side note; how often I’m working at a Starbucks or somewhere similar and see others with their laptops open and a notebook and pen next to it. Going digital can eliminate the paper – or at least that’s MY goal!
High Capacity SD cards
I’ve mentioned SD (Secure Digital) cards several times. These are postage sized memory cards that are used in most cameras and phones today. They are available in sizes up to 16 GB (!) which is a LOT of data storage.
It means local storage and easy file copying. I have a 256 MB card in my camera and 4 GB card in my phone. Picture a teeny tiny hard drive that swaps easily.
High Quality earphones
These are important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they plug into the Smartphone for listening to music or audio AND they also allow you to take phone calls and hear the call in both ears. This ability is HUGE if you are in the car.
Because most phones use a 2.5 mm jack and the headphones have a 3.5 mm jack, you’ll need an adapter. I have no need of a separate media player (iPod or other) as the Treo using Windows Media Player will playback music, podcasts or even YouTube or other video.
Mobile Broadband Card
Mobile Broadband is a fancy way of saying that you’re connected to the Internet via the cell phone network. These cards are available from all cell vendors but – be warned – you’ll need a ‘data plan’ from your vendor and, depending on how much you intend to use your mobile setup, it may get a bit pricey.
Realize also that mobile broadband is NOT as fast as your DSL or cable. Don’t plan on downloading large movies, but you can do almost anything else that you would do on a networked PC.
The mobile broadband card lets you work wherever you have a cell signal – it keeps you from having to pay for WiFi at a coffee shop or the airport.
USB hard drive
USB-attached hard drives have gotten smaller in size and larger in capacity. Used as a backup device and for extra storage, you can get a 500 GB drive for around $100. Again, you can never have too much closet space or too many digital storage devices!
The wonder of each of these is, except for my web-based storage, free! The idea is to be able to do ANYTHING you can do sitting in a well-equipped office.
With high capacity SD cards and USB-attached hard drives, what do you need with web-based storage? Because you never, never know when your mobile drives might go missing. I have a plan with Joyent which gives me over 20GB of online storage which I access using a secure client from sftpdrive.com.
You’ll want to keep this offsite storage backed up with ANYTHING on your mobile setup that would be impossible to replace if your mobile office was lost or stolen. An option to paid storage, as we’ll see in the next section, is your Gmail account, which allows you 7 GB of online storage at no charge.
Jott is great. You sign up, get a toll free number, program it as the “1” key on your phone and you’re ready. Ready for what? Call the 800 number and press 1 to Jott yourself. Leave up to a 15-second message and Jott will transcribe it and email it to you in text form. You can also sign up other phone numbers and Jott other people or even groups of people. Great for broadcast messages to 1 or many. Great also for recording that next million-dollar idea you get while you’re driving. (Note: since originally writing this article, Jott has come out of ‘beta’ which means that some things that were free now cost a monthly fee. But the basic voice-to-text is still free.)
Do you Twitter ( www.twitter.com )? Twitter differs from Jott in that you send a text message (up to 140 characters) to phone number 40404 and it appears in your Twitter page online.
I have a Twitter ‘gadget’ (more on gadgets later) on Google that displays my Tweets (as they’re called) on my Google homepage. Some folks use Twitter to make mini-blog entries too.
The bulk of this is absolutely free. SFTP Drive is the one exception.
People either love or hate Google. My concern is that I’ve moved so much of my work into this workspace called the Google Desktop that if Google dies I’ll be in real trouble. However, as with so many of these items, Google had provided a local backup option which we’ll talk about later.
When I first created a Gmail account I didn’t think I’d use it much. I mainly signed up so I could use Gtalk – Google’s IM client. But then I began to find it easier to use my Gmail address to fill out forms. THEN I found out that my Outlook didn’t work well in some hotels. I could receive email but not send. Gmail sends and receives from any browser on any machine.
I began using Gmail more and more as it is browser-based and I could get to it practically anywhere. You can also use Google search on your emails so finding ‘stuff’ quickly is easy.
As I stated, Gtalk is Google’s IM client. I don’t chat much but keeping a few close contacts has been immensely helpful. If you do a lot of Instant Messaging, you may need a multi-site client like Pidgin ( www.pidgin.im ) that lets you access different services such as AIM.
Google Documents has turned into a real boon. It has the ability to upload and open Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. Two key points – again the main one is that you can get to your documents from any computer. But secondly, you can easily collaborate on a document or spreadsheet with simple ‘sharing’ on the site. You can share a single document or an entire folder of documents. Great for collaboration, you can create word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations.
I’m not a Digg or Delicious user (for storing bookmarked websites) so I use the Google toolbar (which is installed in your browser when you sign up for a Google account) to grab bookmarks easily and quickly. Clicking the blue star in the Google Toolbar files the site in the Google Notebook under “unfiled sites”. Again – it doesn’t matter what computer I’m on. All my bookmarks are available.
G-space is a Firefox plugin that puts a file explorer window in your browser. You may not know that a free Google account comes with 7 GB of storage. While that’s not a huge amount for music or video, it’s more than enough to back up documents or files that, again, you may need from more than one location.
You can use G-space to easily upload multiple documents to your Google account. Lose your laptop? No problem; you have a thumb drive, right? Lose your briefcase and you may be in trouble. Store your proposals and PowerPoint using G-space? Never lose a file again.
Google Calendar isn’t that sexy, but it is very functional. With the ability to share a calendar you can use it for collaboration easily. It’s extremely easy to use and, again, you can share a calendar with an assistant, work group or family so everyone can access the same calendar.
A free add-on for your Windows smartphone, GooSync updates your phone’s calendar from your Google Calendar. It’s bi-directional and very easy to use. You never have to double enter an appointment – enter it once in Google Calendar and run GooSync.
SFTP Drive provides a secure login to external servers – that being your offsite storage other than your Google account. If you work via FTP (file transfer protocol) and are a Windows worker, SFTP Drive displays your server as another drive on your My Computer and allows you to drag and drop files. I use in conjunction with my Joyent account to back up important files.
6) Optional items for your mobile office
These items are ‘helpful’ but not absolutely necessary.
Audible.com is the premier site for audio books and other audio material. Audible comes with it’s own smartphone application so you don’t need an MP3 player to listen to your favorite authors. Audible is a purchased service.
With an external hard drive, I have not found an external CD/DVD player/burner necessary – yet. If you burn CDs or want to view DVDs you may need one. Some Sony UMPCs still fit a DVD drive into the PC itself.
Moleskin or writing pad
(Sigh) There still MIGHT be times when you need to write something down. A small pad (often called a moleskin) can be tossed into the bag and doesn’t add much bulk. I use a small notebook from Miquelrius which opens fully without breaking at the spine.
I haven’t tried this yet but I’d like to replace the moleskin with one of the several digital pens available. Basically they ‘watch’ as you write and store the information digitally. Some of them will even perform handwriting recognition on your scratches and turn them into text. But you can also save that million-dollar doodle electronically.
Again, I haven’t needed this yet, but if you’re an insurance agent or Realtor, you may need to print paper. I have used the Canon I-90, which is small, lightweight and prints in color.
Since the Fujitsu 1610 is a touch screen, it comes with a built-in stylus. But if you are ‘mouse dependent’, a Bluetooth mouse gives you a wireless solution. I use the Kensington Pilot Mouse.
This is another one I haven’t tried yet but am considering. A Bluetooth keyboard folds up small and communicates with the computer via a Bluetooth (wireless) connection. Surprisingly this isn’t for the PC but for the Treo Smartphone. Since you have a mobile version of Word, you can open a document on your phone and use a fold up Bluetooth keyboard to type longer documents without cranking up the PC.
There are probably hundreds of variations on this theme. I don’t claim this is perfect but it does allow me to do ANYTHING I can do in my office anywhere I go.