We learn at an early age that wires are not to be trusted. We're told not to hide them under the carpet because they'll get frayed by the rocking chair, short out, and start fires. Wires clutter the view above the street, break during storms, and generally don't seem high-tech enough to be carrying electricity.
On a desk with a PC, a monitor, a modem, an external CD-ROM drive, and a mouse all plugged into a power strip, we've got a real mess of spaghetti. Can we get rid of it all? Go wireless? Maybe.
Portable PCs are very portable these days, but they must be tethered to wires when you want to communicate with someone else, right? Not any more. It's now possible and, in fact, simple, to use your portable PC with your cellular phone, both running on batteries, to send faxes, read E-mail, and do all the other jobs that heretofore required wires. (OK, you do need a wire to go between your portable PC and your portable phone, but it's a short one.)
What exactly do you need, say, if you travel a lot and want to be able to send and receive faxes and E-mail and connect to your corporate network? Here's what works for me:
A portable computer capable of working for two or more hours on battery power. Mine is a Toshiba with two PCMCIA slots -- a terrific option. It lets you add modems, memory, and network adapters into a slot on the side of the computer.
A modem capable of supporting cellular telephones. Read the box before you buy the modem, and make sure the one you select supports ETC (Enhanced Throughput Cellular) and MNP-10. My 14.4 Data/14.4 Fax PCMCIA card from AT&T comes with software and a cable (wire in disguise) for plugging into a standard telephone jack. It does not come with a wire for a cellular connection, but you can order one.
Data-communications software. My portable came with its own software, but I decided to use ProComm Plus, because I use it in the office.
A cellular telephone with a port for a data line. My Motorola FlipPhone has a dataport on the bottom.
Aside from the computer, all this stuff could be shrink-wrapped together and stuck on a shelf for you to buy. It isn't yet, but with some tips from the NYNEX Mobile Communications people, who are committed to this technology, everything works together pretty smoothly. I had one problem, which might be specific to the Toshiba: I had to remove the DOS command POWER.EXE from my boot-up file. This command helps manage my laptop's battery power, but for some reason it interfered with the modem.
Once we were running, even the hotshot technical folks got a kick out of walking around the office holding my computer and cellular phone, and monitoring the activity of our wireless network. But it's not just a gimmick: wireless computing could prove useful to our peripatetic techies. Our company's backup power supplies in the computer room automatically take over if we have a power failure. At the same time the computer places a call to our technical person's beeper. He can dial in and try to save things or at least shut the computers down as gracefully as possible. With the cellular data-communications capability, he doesn't have to lose valuable time running to a wired telephone to dial in.
My friend who is a contractor could also use cellular data communications, though he won't admit it. This guy doesn't use a computer. He does all his estimates using a typewriter and a calculator. (Can you imagine?) He could use the setup my company put together to fax proposals and estimates from his truck and construction shacks, to send orders to suppliers and subcontractors, and to dispatch information back to his home office.
Suddenly, everywhere I look I see applications for this setup. I had occasion to visit an auto-body appraiser last week. I arrived early, shortly after the appraiser had opened his briefcase. Inside he had a notebook computer, a CD-ROM drive, and a small printer -- and on his desk was a modem. He connected to the modem and downloaded his assignments for the day. If my car had not been drivable, he would have had to come to me. And if he'd also had a cellular modem and a cellular telephone in his briefcase, he would not have needed to return to his office to fax the appraisal to the body shop and the claims adjuster.
Whether you need it or not, this is neat technology, and it's reasonably priced. The cellular calls are not cheap, but competition and volume will bring the price down. The cost for everything you need, excluding the computer, is under $500.* * *
Sandy Friedman is the founder and CEO of Counterpoint Publishing Inc., in Cambridge, Mass.