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On The Road Again

July 26, 2004

By Gary Mcwilliams

When it comes to your office, you can take it with you. And it's getting easier all the time.

Consider: Laptops with Wi-Fi connections and cellular modems let you check inventory and finalize customer orders from just about any remote location. "Smart" phones give you uninterrupted online access as you travel across the U.S. and Europe. Wireless portable printers let you make hard copies from your laptop, hand-held PC or digital camera without lugging around cables. New computer terminals let you swipe an ID card and call up your personal files from any desk at your company.

By some estimates, 40% of workers now travel for business, and market watcher IDC predicts that figure will rise to two-thirds by the end of 2006. And as the roster of road warriors grows, so does the demand for new gadgets to keep business running smoothly.

Alex Gruzen, senior vice president of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s mobile-computing global business unit, cites IDC numbers that predict industrywide sales of mobile devices and services will increase 18% to 20% annually through 2007, three times the rate of the computer and communications market. "It's an essential part of driving productivity gains," says Mr. Gruzen.

As the gadgets become more popular and the technology advances, the cost tumbles and accessibility widens with each generation of hardware. For example, Avaya Inc.'s first wireless Internet phone cost a whopping $740 in 2002. The second-generation phone was 28% less, and the newest release should cost 10% less than that, says Fritz Ollom, an Avaya manager.

Here's a closer look at some of the technologies that are reshaping life on the road.

Laptop PCs

At United Pipe & Supply, a pipe wholesaler in Portland, Ore., salespeople hit the road with notebook PCs loaded with wireless gear. If the road warriors are in a "hot spot" -- a specially equipped space that provides wireless Internet access -- they can use their laptops' Wi-Fi connections to go online and enter orders, browse inventory and check back orders. If they're outside a hot spot, they can still connect to the Internet with a cellular modem. That means they can go online wherever they can get a regular cellphone signal, from construction sites to farmers' fields.

"Our sales guys are out there doing business on the hood of a truck," says Mike Green, the company's chief information officer. "Anything they can access [in the office] in digital form, they can access in their trucks."

Welcome to the future of laptops, where technology is finally delivering long-promised productivity gains. New chip sets from Intel Corp. are giving increasing numbers of machines wireless capability.

Hot spots are booming in cafes, hotels and other public places. More cellular carriers are offering data service over their networks, and wireless-service suppliers such as Deutsche Telekom AG's T-Mobile have popped up in most metropolitan areas. T-Mobile, for instance, has some 2,700 U.S. hot spots where companies can access high-speed Wi-Fi networks.

Since February, when it finished rolling out its 80 Gateway Inc. model 450 notebook PCs, United Pipe has pared staff who worked behind the scenes answering calls from the sales staff, helping check inventory and entering orders. Mr. Green estimates the $120,000 cost of the rollout will be recouped in three years by cutting a single sales position.

The laptops also let United Pipe stay ahead of the competition, Mr. Green says. Salespeople can send orders to headquarters and get a fax confirmation while talking to a customer on site. "It precludes a competitor coming in and underpricing us or stealing the order," he says.

Tablet PCs

These portable computers -- which offer screens you can write on like a legal pad -- have found a home in professions where it's more socially acceptable to scribble notes when talking to customers than to type.

Insurance companies give them to claims adjusters for use in the field, and consultants take them to client meetings or the factory floor.

Thanks to the industry clout of Microsoft Corp., which developed the tablets' operating software and provided PC makers with hardware designs, the machines are available world-wide from two dozen makers, including giants NEC Corp., H-P and Sharp Electronics Corp. as well as start-ups such as Motion Computing Inc. NEC's $1,400 Versa Litepad weighs just 2.2 pounds and offers a 10.4-inch screen, 256 megabytes of memory and 20 gigabytes of storage space. H-P's tablet PC, the TC1100, weights 3.1 pounds and includes a 10.4-inch display, 256 MB of memory and a 30 GB hard disk.

Still, tablet PC sales in 2003, the first full year of shipments, were about 430,000. That's hardly a sweeping success: Last year, PC unit sales ran to over 160 million world-wide. The lackluster sales suggest that customers don't want an expensive gadget just for taking notes on the fly. Instead, manufacturers say buyers want tablets as an ultralightweight primary computer, one they can use as a laptop in their office when they don't care about maintaining eye contact.

As a result, many tablet PC makers are providing external keyboards and docking stations to add back the features that customers miss most from their notebook PCs.

Microsoft -- whose record of designing PC hardware is dismal at best -- is promising to make its handwriting-recognition and wireless-communications software available for full-fledged laptops.

Already, Gateway, Fujitsu Ltd., Sharp, Toshiba Corp. and ViewSonic Corp. have introduced a PC that's a cross between a tablet and a notebook. These "convertible" PCs combine a tablet's pen input and note-storing abilities with those of a regular laptop, including keyboard, wireless networking and plenty of storage.

A convertible's screen twists around so you can use it as a digital notepad for taking notes during meetings. Another turn of the screen, and the machine becomes a full-powered color laptop with wireless links to Wi-Fi networks.

The price of these hybrids ranges from $1,800 for Gateway's M275 -- with a 14-inch display, Pentium M processor, 256 MB of memory and 40 GB hard disk -- to $2,150 for Toshiba's Portege M205, which comes with a 12-inch display, 512 MB and 60 GB hard drive. The Sharp Actius 10W, ViewSonic V1205 and Fujitsu Lifebook T3010 each come with 12-inch twist screens, full keyboards and Wi-Fi wireless networking.

Neither the second- nor fourth-largest notebook suppliers world-wide, Dell Inc. and International Business Machines Corp., have shown interest in entering the tablet or convertible PC market. Dell, for one, believes the tablet PC will never become a high-volume seller. Chairman Michael S. Dell has called the tablet PC "a solution in search of a problem."

Smart Phones

For years, the Global System Mobile, or GSM, communication standard has allowed people to roam across Asia, Europe and U.S. without losing cellphone service. Now GSM lets you get seamless Internet service across the Continent, the U.S. and parts of Asia.

This means that GSM "smart" phones -- which surf the Internet and offer nonphone services such as storing appointments and contacts -- can offer you constant access to your corporate e-mail as you travel. That feature is turning gadgets like the $450 PalmOne Treo 600, from palmOne Inc., and the $800 Sony Ericsson P900, into serious competitors to hand-held PCs. Hand-helds, such as H-P's iPaq and Dell's Axim, have long allowed you to check work e-mail, much like a Blackberry does, but they haven't offered the seamless roaming of GSM.

Smart phones are also attempting to replace Global Positioning System devices, using a technology called assisted GPS, which determines location by triangulation instead of satellites. Microsoft plans to create new services for assisted GPS that allow businesses to locate workers or deliveries by tracking their phone signals. Similar to AtRoad Inc.'s location-tracking service, Microsoft's MapPoint Location Server will launch this summer for customers using Sprint or Bell Mobility networks in the U.S. and Canada.

But hand-held PC makers aren't sitting still for all this. Due out today, H-P's new iPaq h6300 will offer GSM phone service along with wireless features for accessing e-mail and sending documents or photos to a printer. The h6300 can switch between cellular and Wi-Fi Internet access on the fly, as users move in and out of hot spots, and issue alerts for incoming e-mail while in telephone mode. (H-P says pricing will be available at time of shipment.)

Wireless Internet Phones

Voice-over-IP phones let companies transmit regular calls as data over the Internet instead of phone lines, saving money on long-distance bills. Now wireless versions of these phones -- which connect to the Internet by wireless networks or hot spots -- are starting to come down in price, making them an affordable prospect for regular road warriors, and not just the techno-adventurous.

For a long time, prices for portable IP handsets -- which look like large GSM phones -- ran a hefty $700, excluding the cost of providing a wireless access network. On top of that, there were security concerns: Wireless signals could be easily captured and decoded by rivals or hackers. And there weren't many places that offered easy access, meaning the phones could be used only at corporate campuses or other spots with wireless networks.

The phones became niche items, selling mostly to manufacturers that want instant access to factory-floor managers, or executives whose companies had campuswide Internet phone service.

Now advances in miniaturization, volume efficiencies and encryption have made wireless IP phones a cheap, safe prospect. Motorola Inc. and SpectraLink Corp., the leading sellers of wireless IP phones, have finally gotten the handsets below $400. Moreover, the proliferation of high-speed wireless and home networks has made them a practical alternative for travelers.

"This is definitely the year of Voip technology," says Chris Shipman, director at Epic Systems Ltd., which sells and installs corporate voice-over-IP systems.

Daniel Briere, chief executive of communications consultant Telechoice Inc., predicts that with wireless access reaching many hotels, airports and even coffeehouses, there should soon be a home market for the phones. Indeed, earlier this year Vonage Holdings Corp. struck a deal with Texas Instruments Inc., the largest supplier of wireless-phone chips, to develop versions that can be used on Vonage's home voice-over-IP service.

Portable Printers

Portable printers have long been prized by insurance agents, home inspectors and real-estate brokers who wanted immediate approval or delivery of customized contracts. The big innovation was battery power, which eliminated the need to tote around the heavy AC bricks used with desktop printers.

But it's only in the past 18 months that portable printers have offered page-speed and photo-printing capabilities that rival desktop models. That has broadened their appeal to small-business people, teachers and photographers.

Now a new development is giving the devices even greater promise: wireless communications. Using the Bluetooth wireless standard, newer Canon Inc. and H-P portable printers don't need cables to connect to laptops and other digital gear.

The printers can now access and print from personal digital assistants, cellphones or notebooks at a speed of one megabit a second at about 33 feet. That's about nine pages to 13 pages a minute, compared with anywhere from 15 to 50 pages a minute for regular office machines. The newest portables also come with slots that accept flash-memory cards, so you don't need to attach your digital camera to the device in order to print photos -- just transfer the memory card from one gadget to the other.

Canon's i80, a $250 portable color printer, offers a Bluetooth adapter as an $80 option. The four-pound printer runs off an internal battery that promises 450 pages between charges. H-P offers three models of its Deskjet 450 portable line, including a model with built-in Bluetooth communications for $349 at retail.

Because of the demand from small companies, electronics retailer Best Buy Co. this spring began marketing bundles of laptop PCs and portable printers. Of course, it's still a niche market: Buyers of portables must be willing to pay triple the price of a desktop inkjet printer.

Power To Go

For many travelers, preparing for a business trip means pulling together a host of gadgets for a power check. Kitchen and dining-room tables become assembly lines for charging the laptop, cellphone, hand-helds and assorted extra batteries. It's either that or lugging along AC adapters, and digging out and untangling cables and car chargers, some of which will invariably get left behind when the trip is over.

And replacements aren't cheap. PC suppliers such as Dell and H-P charge $60 to $80 for individual notebook AC adapters. IBM gets $90 for a combo AC/DC adapter that can be used in the car or in the office.

Now there's an alternative -- universal adapters that allow one recharger to handle the whole kit and caboodle. Some devices from American Power Conversion Corp., Fortune Brands Inc.'s Kensington Technology Group unit and Mobility Electronics Inc. come with interchangeable components that allow you to plug in and recharge most portable electronic devices on the road, in the air or in a hotel.

Mobility Electronics' $120 iGo Juice can recharge notebook PCs from 11 major manufacturers. An optional $20 cable works with cellphones and hand-held PCs. This summer, $10 tips will be available that allow the iGo to recharge digital cameras, Blackberries and MP3 players. Kensington Technology's Universal Laptop Power Supply, also $120, works with most laptops. APC's $60 TravelPower will recharge a notebook while traveling in a car or airplane. APC also sells $20 cables that can recharge a cellphone by attaching it to a notebook PC's USB connector. Separate cables are required for Palm Pilots and other hand-held PCs.

GPS for Mobile Workers

Early advocates of GPS hand-helds were "3Hers" -- hikers, hunters and the hopelessly lost. The advent of GPS for most hand-held PCs gave business travelers a way to use the technology to get to meetings on time in unfamiliar locations. The more sophisticated will display a map of your location along with driving routes to a destination.

There are now dozens of GPS devices that attach to hand-held PCs' synch ports or memory slots. Some add-ons even work with notebook PCs. Thales Navigation SA's Magellan GPS Companion is a $200 add-on to palmOne's m500 series devices. Pharos Science & Applications Inc. produces GPS add-ons for most Microsoft Windows pocket PC devices, such as the Toshiba Pocket PC, Dell Axim and H-P iPaq. Its Pocket GPS Navigator costs about $200 and connects to a hand-held's synch port.

Newer versions come with Bluetooth wireless communications, allowing the GPS to beam information to a hand-held or smart phone display. That allows you to link GPS information with map software such as Microsoft's PocketStreets -- so you can check the hand-held's screen and see yourself moving along an actual map. Hand-helds with sound will also announce the next turn you need to take. TomTom Navigator USA has a Bluetooth GPS add-on for $345.

For those who want the slickest all-in-one for their car, Pioneer Electronics Inc.'s $2,000 AVIC-N1 combines GPS with a CD, DVD and MP3 player and satellite radio. It can load a travel route from a CD database, then store that route while music or the radio is playing. A rear-seat monitor allows those in the back seat to watch DVD movies. Its eight-inch color monitor can even display gauges such as speed, acceleration and lateral G-force on turns.

Badge Computing

Sun Microsystems Inc. -- which makes big server computers --has seen personal computers advance into its territory for the better part of a decade. It has fought back a number of times over the years, trying to come up with competing gadgets that would knock the PC off its office perch.

Its latest attempt may prove the most intriguing yet. With "badge computing," every worker at a company carries an ID card containing an electronic profile. Using the badge, workers can go to any computer terminal in the company and log into a central server that gives them access to their software applications, files and other services. Sun employees now use the cards in 92 locations for instant access to e-mail, applications and the Internet. Sun says it has a waiting list of 17,000 employees wanting access devices for their homes.

The service requires companies to install specially built Sun Ray desktop terminals, which cost between $200 and $600 each, plus software that costs $100 a year per employee. Sun says the machines could sharply cut the cost of administering networks of PCs. The Sun Rays are less expensive than regular PCs, and the software costs are far lower: Programs are stored on central servers, so companies don't have to run around installing updates for every desktop. Bill Vass, Sun's vice president for corporate software services, says the deployment cost for the terminals is one-seventh that of a typical desktop PC running Windows.

Of course, customers must give up the Microsoft Windows applications used by many office workers. Sun Ray relies on the StarOffice suite of word-processing, spreadsheet and other applications and open-source packages such as the Mozilla browser.

Until recently, the technology required you to buy a Sun server also -- an expensive prospect for companies looking to save on the cost of desktop PCs and software. But Sun says that by October it will make the software available for any server running the open-source Linux operating system. That will permit customers to run the programs on inexpensive servers from Dell, H-P, IBM -- or Sun.

At about the same time, the company promises to give the Sun Ray devices the option of voice-over-Internet phone service. That way, says Sun's Mr. Vass, users can access their personal phone number at any remote terminal as well as their computer information, all with the swipe of card.

Roadside Support

Whom do you call when a portable PC dies the night before a presentation? Getting help on the road for simple jobs, such as virus removal, is becoming easier, but getting a failed hard drive fixed can still take several days.

Dell, H-P and IBM offer on-site, next-day service in most U.S. cities for about $50 a year -- for business customers who purchase a new system and agree to accept a telephone diagnosis. In other words, the company won't automatically send out a technician just because you ask for one. Instead, a customer-service rep will interview you and decide whether your problem warrants a visit -- a potentially complex, time-consuming and frustrating chore for consumers.

International travelers face additional hurdles. If a particular model wasn't sold in the country where a problem occurs, most manufacturers require you to return the hardware to the country of purchase for servicing. European travelers to the U.S. who carry a Fujitsu-Siemens notebook face a two-day turnaround on repair calls while in the U.S. and must bring it to a local repair depot.

For those who can obtain a loaner during their visit, retail chains such as Best Buy and CompUSA offer on-site installation and repair services along with some parts. The retailers will transfer critical documents and data from a malfunctioning computer to a new one, replace broken CD drives and remove viruses. But they won't transfer software from a dying machine to a new one because of license restrictions -- so you'll have to obtain new copies of your programs.

And you'll have to ferret out individual stores that offer on-site computer services -- not all do. Best Buy, for instance, charges $80 to transfer up to four GB between notebooks, and a disk installation will run about $40 in its stores. It has begun offering fixed-priced home installation and computer-repair service, but says notebooks aren't fixed on site. It takes up to a week to return a notebook for service.

Of course, most manufacturers have improved their notebooks' ability to withstand software crashes, and even to provide access to data and services during some failures. Virtual disks allow a notebook to remain operating despite disk corruption. IBM's rescue-and-recovery feature can provide some functions, such as Internet access, during an operating-system failure.

Off-Hour Diversions

For a long time, mobile-equipment makers have known it doesn't hurt to add a little fun to their products. Most cellphones came with built-in memory games and notebook PCs offered chess and solitaire.

The latest in mobile-office gadgets go far beyond these rudimentary diversions and tackle off-hours pursuits such as music, text messaging, movie watching (or making) and game playing as an integral part of their use.

A stroll down the aisle of many cross-country flights finds DVD movies playing on the 15- and 17-inch screens of notebook PCs, many of which now offer stereo headphone connections. Certain notebook PCs from H-P, Sony Corp. and Toshiba can record and play TV programs. Nokia Corp.'s N-Gage, which costs about $300 before rebates, is primarily a hand-held game device with phone, text messaging and MP3 music and FM radio as additional features.

Telephone companies such as Verizon Wireless, a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC, let you download games such as Tetris to your cellphone for $6. The arrival of new-generation cellphones with substantial memory and processing power may soon let you fill idle time on the subway or in the dentist's waiting room with MP3 audio and video.

Even dedicated devices such as Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod digital-music player are being turned into gaming machines. Enthusiasts of the $300 device now offer home-brew software that turns the MP3 player into a game machine. Meanwhile, camera phones have created a whole new class of amusement called moblogging, for mobile web logging; users post mundane and occasionally bizarre cellphone snapshots into online scrapbooks such as Mobog, Textamerica and Yafro.

There are also gadgets for techno-geeks whose idea of fun is hunting down wireless hot spots. Rather than troll around with a laptop and sniffer program searching for access signals, you can now do your searching at the push of a button. Wi-Fi finders, available from Chrysalis Development LLC, Kensington Technology and Smart ID Technology Ltd., are the size of key-chain garage-door openers. All three gadgets sell for about $30 and signal the presence of wireless 802.11 networks within 100 to 200 feet. Flashing LEDs indicate the presence of a signal.

Mr. McWilliams is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal's Houston bureau.

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