FlexWork – New Ways of Working in Remote Regions

FlexWork - flexible working

You don’t have to be too old to remember the days when you either did all of your business at a desk, or spent your time out on the road making notes for later typing and looking for public phones so that you could keep in touch.

The mobile phone and the laptop computer have dramatically changed the way many people work, but their real capabilities are probably still widely misunderstood and their primary use often seems to be to phone home to say that the train is late and to then play Solitaire on the laptop. By understanding what these mobile tools can really do, you can free yourself from the office.

Keeping in touch on the move

Almost all mobile phones in Europe make use of a technology called GSM. GSM was designed to provide good quality mobile voice services and to offer good security. A benefit for the international traveller is that the same system is used throughout Europe and in many other countries around the world, although using your phone abroad can be expensive. A complication is that not all GSM networks use the same radio frequencies and you really need a ‘dual-band’ phone if you travel extensively. Outside Europe, you will probably need a ‘tri-band’ phone to use some networks.

Most GSM networks also offer an extremely useful voice mail facility, so that people can leave messages for you if your phone is busy, switched off, or out of range of a transmitter. Any GSM phone can also send text messages to any other GSM phone. This has now become a major form of communication in some markets, especially amongst younger users, and has encouraged many network operators to develop simple text-based information services giving, for example, traffic information and weather reports.

A WAP phone screen - courtesy of Nokia Seeing the popularity of text messaging, the industry developed a Wireless Applications Protocol (WAP) to deliver more sophisticated information services to the display screens of GSM phones. The idea was that users could surf cut-down versions of Internet WEB pages using their mobile phones. WAP based services were launched in 2000 and are gaining in their popularity, but they are no real substitute for true Internet services.

It has always been possible to use a modem to connect a GSM phone to a laptop computer and access the Internet, but the connection is very slow. The 3rd Generation mobile networks that are being planned around Europe are expected to make mobile data communication (e.g. internet access) a practical reality.

In the meantime, operators are introducing a number of interim solutions, sometimes known as 2.5G. One such is HSCSD (High Speed Circuit Switched Data), which is a relatively inefficient (i.e. expensive) way of using the network for data and has not been widely offered in Europe. The main operator offering HSCSD is Orange.

An alternative, and more widely adopted, solution, is the General Packet Radio System (GPRS). This can offer data rates comparable to a fixed phone line. It makes much more efficient use of the GSM radio network and therefore should be cheaper than HSCSD. For the user, the main advantages are the increased data speed and the fact that it is an always-on service. The main disadvantage is that many operators base their charges on the amount of data that you send and receive. This means that, unlike voice calls, it is relatively difficult to work out how much calls are costing you until you are sent the bill.

The first GPRS services were launched in Europe at the end of 1999 and most major mobile operators are offering the service, although it may not be available to all customers.

There is one possible health issue to be aware of. There is some concern that the radio waves emitted by mobile phone handsets can damage the brain. Scientific studies are inconclusive but many people who use their phones a lot use ‘hands-free’ adapters that keep the actual transmitter a metre or so away from the head.

Taking your office with you

Mobile computing allows you to take many of the facilities you have in the office out on the road with you. When used with your mobile phone, mobile computers let you work almost anywhere.

Mobile computers come in two main types – portable (or laptop) PCs and personal digital assistants (or palmtops). 

A laptop PC is, typically, about the size of an A4 folder and can range in thickness from about 2 – 5 cm. They work off batteries, for a few hours, or a mains supply and normally contain all of the features of a normal PC. Laptop PCs do not have quite the same power as normal desktop PCs, in terms of processor power or storage capacity, but are by no means underpowered. The cost of a laptop PC is generally about 50% more than the cost of an equivalent desktop PC.

Laptop PCs run the normal operating systems and applications that are available on desktop PCs.

Tablet PDA A laptop PC gives workers the freedom to carry out almost all of their tasks in almost any location. They can also connect to their company’s network for file sharing by using a modem or (more slowly) via a mobile phone. Secure communications with a company’s network can be set up by using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) over the Internet from a laptop (or PDA) to the company’s network.

For some purposes, even a laptop PC is too bulky. A smaller class of mobile computers, known as PDAs (or Personal Digital Assistants) is becoming increasingly popular. They are also known as handhelds or palClamshell PDAm-tops or pocket PCs. These come in two main forms – as a tablet; where a stylus is used for input; or as a clamshell, which opens out to reveal a small keyboard and a screen. Typical examples of tablet PDAs are those made by Palm and by Compaq, whereas the clamshell PDAs are typified by those produced by Psion.

PDAs often run “cut-down” versions of the applications found on normal PCs and can thus carry out many of the functions of a conventional PC. The tablet PDAs do not have keyboards and are therefore less suited for typing in large amounts of material. A PDA is small enough to fit into a pocket and is often used to carry around contact details, send and receive e-mails and to make working notes while away from the office. PDAs are designed to synchronise the information they hold with a master copy held on a PC whenever they are connected to it. Some come with a special cradle which remains connected to the PC and automatically carries out this synchronisation whenever the PDA is put in the cradle.

Add-ons are also available for PDAs and laptops that are especially suited to mobile use. For example, navigation tools that use the GPS satellite system can be added.

A final piece of advice

You no longer have to choose between staying close to the information you need in your office for your business, or being out meeting your customers and suppliers. Look closely at what you do and decide where the best place is to do it – then decide what mobile office tools to use. You may even find that you can do some jobs more effectively sitting in your garden away from the routine interruptions of your office!

For more advice on how to use the technologies available to you, visit the FlexWork web site at www.flexwork.eu.com

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