The disconnected traveller

I'm mobile, remote and ready to work but the technology is letting me down. I'm not so much a connected man as dislocated.

I'm writing this from a bed in a hotel in Stockholm where I'm lying watching the Swedish version of Antiques Roadshow.

I should be at dinner with the nice folk from Ericsson who paid for my trip but, quite frankly, my stomach still hasn't worked out what time zone it thinks it's in and I haven't got the energy to convince it that reindeer and/or herring are appropriate foods for the moment.

Instead, let me tell you about the Swedish phone maker's vision of the wireless world and my nomadic reality by way of contrast.

In the future Ericsson sees a permanently connected world for the business traveller. It's a kind of federal approach to the thorny problem of this kind of seamless integration - the user is constantly connected at high speed by a variety of networks that overlap but do not obscure each other.

At the most basic layer you have the personal area network (PAN). It's you, your cellphone, your palmtop, notebook and whatever else you have in the way of devices. Honestly, some days I think I need a Batman utility belt just to carry all this stuff. This gives way to the LAN when you're out and about and to the WAN when you're away from home. The three sets interconnect and even overlap and it's the tricky business of the hand-over that Ericsson is working to sort out.

The idea is to keep you connected to your network as if you were at your desk, even if you're on a plane, in a taxi or hotel or whatever. Between Bluetooth, 3G cellular connections, wireless LAN hot-spots and the like, travellers can be assured of broadband connectivity wherever they are.

This is not as easy at it sounds, or as it should be. Let me give you an example: me. I can't access my Vodafone voicemail from Stockholm or use my cellphone to make calls to 021 numbers. I don't know why. I can call landlines, and other cellular numbers, but not Vodafone ones.

My phone did find a network to connect to as soon as I switched it on after clearing the airport, but I get no information on that network or why my phone chose it. I don't know if one of the other two networks that are available to me would be cheaper or more efficient. My phone does receive calls quite happily, though the caller has no way of knowing I'm in a different time zone and that my phone's acting as an expensive alarm clock.

I also brought a laptop - a nice little Acer that my company provides. We have a pool of these thin, lightweight machines that travellers use when they need to. I can dial into the Notes server we use from anywhere in the world, allegedly, by calling a local phone number provided on the laptop.

Sadly, the number for Stockholm doesn't seem to connect to the net any more. So my email inbox is filling up and there's nothing I can do about it. I also can't file my stories from Stockholm so my editor is probably tearing his hair out. Well, he would be if he had any.

My Palm doesn't talk to my cellphone even though they both have infrared ports, so I'm forever rekeying phone numbers and names and so on. I'm not so much a connected man as dislocated. I'm mobile, remote and ready to work but the technology is letting me down.

Solving these problems is going to take a lot of work, I think. Ericsson seems quite serious about these kinds of problems and even has some products to help keep me in the loop, viz a new PBX system extension that would allow my GSM cellphone to become part of the office network - I could receive, transfer and forward calls among office numbers from my cellphone as easily as from my landline. That's a simple but effective tool that would make it easier for me to be away from the office without too much grief.

Another tool is the unified messaging system One Box that acts as a single in-box for voice, email and fax. You can have emails read to you by Stephen Hawking and even respond to them by voice as well - files are delivered as .wav attachments.

This is all cool stuff, but I fear we have a long way to go before we can truly be as effective away from the office as in it. The alternative may be even worse, however. Can you imagine being stuck on a 10-hour flight reading email? The horror, the horror.

Brislen, a Computerworld journalist, travelled to Stockholm courtesy of Ericsson New Zealand. Send email to Paul Brislen and letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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