Planes, Trains … and Soon Automobiles

The ability to computer on the move is becoming more of a necessity than a luxury, regardless of your viewpoint on whether that should be the case. The traveling workforce needs a pipeline to the Web, while the rest of us just want that connection.

One way to deal with maintaining open lines of communication is through your mobile phone’s data connection. There are drawbacks, including data caps, reception (particularly in buildings or other enclosed areas), and expense.

Another way to tackle the problem is via wi-fi, otherwise known as a wireless local area network, in which users can share a connection to the internet via radio broadcast technology. As long as you are within range of the broadcast signal, wi-fi represents a solid connection. While few devices (read, smartphones and some tablets) offer the ability to pull data over the cellular network, most small and large computing devices have the capability of connecting via wi-fi.

This is all well and good within your own home, where you can easily set up a WLAN off of your own internet connection, But what about when you travel? Some of the best downtime for multi-tasking is during transit – either in the station waiting for public transportation or while en route.

More and more companies recognize the need for widescale wi-fi access and many afford a wireless network for a fee. But, if you  are like me, you would rather suss out the free option.

Airports were among the first to offer wi-fi, but not all of the options were free. To locate airports offering free wi-fi, check out this list updated by users (link here).  Even awesome -er than airport wi-fi, airplane wi-fi is a bit more recent – I took advantage of a free wi-fi offer on Delta last Fall and, I have to say, the ability to surf the web at 30,000 feet was really, REALLY cool. Again, not all airlines offer free inflight wi-fi. But, you can at least check out which airlines offer infilght wi-fi at all at Trip Advisor’s Seat Guru site (link here). On a lengthy flight, the cost might be worth it.

My local commuter rail train, run by the MBTA, offers free wi-fi access in specially-marked train cars. And now, Amtrak has just announced that the Acela will be offering free wi-fi nationwide (link here). After demoing the service in the Northeast corridor and learning that close to 40% of passengers were logging on, they have spread the goodness to everyone. Tip of the hat to them! If you are at all interested in how they do it, check this quote from the article linked above:

Each train has a central system housed in a ‘brain car’ comprising up to eight data modems using all four major US cellular carriers; Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. A 5GHz wireless network connects the brain car to the rest of the train, providing speeds of 12-22Mbps between carriages with approximately 3.5Mbps total bandwidth available for passenger Wi-Fi connections to the Internet. The bottleneck in any train-bound system will always be the backhaul, so AmtrakConnect uses a quality-of-service system that segregates passenger traffic from on-board system traffic, and uses content filtering to manage bandwidth on a per user basis and block certain material including streaming video. The on-train system is augmented by multi-megabit trackside and in-station wireless broadband that offloads traffic from the cellular connections to platform-based infrastructure when a train is at the station.

And, top choice for most space-age option has to be in-car wi-fi! Several months ago, Ford announced that the next generation of its Sync system will permit Ford owners to plug a USB modem directly into a car’s built-in Wi-Fi, creating broadband Internet access for all passengers. Wow! iPad anyone? There are aftermarket providers too: Autonet Mobile and Waav design similar systems for cars. These gizmos may require a subscription based on the amount of data purchased – anywhere from $30 to $60 per month. It could still be a decent option if you travel a lot by car and aren’t planning to pick up the specific Sync-equipped Ford model anytime soon.

Or, you could just move to Ponca City, Oklahoma, where the entire city is wired for sound.


iPhone As Swiss Army Knife

One of my predictions for 2010 was a rise in dependence on mobile computing. When I say mobile computing, I am not talking about your basic laptop. I am talking smartphones – those pocket-able devices that really shouldn’t be called phones at all (I’m looking at YOU, ATT!)

Smartphones and, in particular, the iPhone have been game changers across the spectrum of users. Applications, much like the little tools that pop out of all corners of a Swiss Army knife, meet any and all needs. Eminently customizable, devices like the iPhone really do serve as high-tech duct tape.

I have become quite dependent upon my iPhone. Initially, it really was more toy to me than anything else. I was dazzled by the big, vibrant display and user-friendly interface – these were new to me, after years of dumb phone and Palm Treo 750 experience. Over time, however, I have stretched its capacity, tested its boundaries and found that it really does have an answer to almost any question.

Take, for example, this past weekend. I went skiing with my family over the kids’ spring vacation. Just before leaving, a Twitter friend asked if he could pass my website on to a friend looking for a lawyer with background in writing and social media. That message first arrived on my iPhone via Boxcar (link here) and I responded there.

On Friday, while wearing my skis and riding on a chairlift, a message popped through on my phone via Google Voice and another message came in through my email from my website’s contact form asking for assistance. Later, I emailed and then phoned the potential client and laid down the groundwork for a proposal.

Over the next couple of days, I received background information via email and conducted research using mobile Safari. I used the built-in Notes app to outline some questions. I used Dragon Dictation (link here) to “write” my initial piece of the proposal while riding in the car and used Documents to Go (link here) to create a Word document and edit the piece to final form. As the client preferred communicating by IM / chat, I downloaded BeeJive (link here) to seamlessly chat on the move.

While I was at it, I checked the weather with Weather Bug (link here), used Navigon’s Mobile Navigator (link here) to get me between destinations and Where (link here), AroundMe (link here) and Siri Personal Assistant (link here) to find decent restaurants and other spots high in the mountains. I passed the time pinning my location in Gowalla (link here) and Foursquare (link here). I videoed the kids on my 3GS iPhone and uploaded the content to Flickr (link here) via the app. I stayed in touch with online friends via Tweetie 2 (link here) and Facebook (link here). When I could get signal, my husband and I stayed in touch on the mountain by SMS.

Although I didn’t personally download it, my husband loaded the iSki app (link here), which provides snow condition reports, your downhill speed, vertical feet, and the location of other members of your party on the mountain by their cell phone numbers and GPS.

Because of its extreme versatility, I was able to use both native programs and download new applications to get the job done. No laptop required.

Although I didn’t use the applications during this particular weekend, I have in the past used Westlaw’s mobile webpage interface and Fastcase (link here) to research and send legal information to clients. From my phone, while moving from one place to another.

Think about this: a phone that can cover pretty much any material need and, if you don’t have a particular ability or tool installed, you can find and download one as the need arises. You can even delete that functionality later and add different features. On the fly.

It really is no wonder that smartphone sales have sky rocketed. Who wants to put a laptop in their pocket while riding a ski lift?

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Introducing: Wait For It, Mobile App of the Day!

If yesterday’s stats on social media and mobile usage didn’t convince, maybe the first hand experience of watching everyone around you tapping on their mobile devices will. Or maybe ATT’s perennial network problems might persuade you that everyone is going mobile.

I have been getting loads of questions about mobile apps lately. So I thought it might be a good idea to start a new blog devoted to mobile applications. Without further ado, please welcome the newly-minted Mobile App Of The Day!

I do a lot of reviewing on such apps here in the Studio, but they are mostly iPhone applications and all have some connection to business use. The new blog will highlight cool apps covering a broader range of uses and will not be limited to any particular platform. Also, because mobile users are “on the go”, these will be quick, light photo blog entries with short descriptions. All apps will be ones that I personally use or that have been heavily reviewed and that I want to start using. Hopefully it will serve as a discovery tool for you as well. Initially, I am going to limit the entries to weekdays, but if there is enough interest, I might expand to weekend days as well.

Mobile App of the Day is hosted on Tumblr (link here) will have its own Twitter feed @mobileappofday so you can either follow on Tumblr or subscribe to @mobileappofday updates on Twitter. Or both!

If you are interested in particular kinds of apps, please feel free to put a comment to this post here in the Studio and I will set about finding and reviewing the goods!

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My Mobile Web Wish List

One of the predictions I shared with the fine folks at JD Supra and their readers is my belief that we are moving more towards a mobile web experience with our computing lives. I am no Nostradamus – I picked this vibe up from the heavy tech reading that I do and I also know my own personal computing habits and how they have changed over the past few years. Whether your “poison” is an iPhone, Android-based unit, Blackberry, Windows Mobile-enabled device, e-reader or one of those fabled tablet computers, we are pushing the little boxes to their limits and are looking for more.

So I thought I would put together my own mobile wish list for 2010. Things I would like to see happen with my own, personal experience and generally for all mobile computing whizzes out there.

First, and foremost, more voice-activated control over my device. Mobile means, well, mobile. Texting while driving is very very bad, we can all agree. So make the interface better – make it so we can easily, with the touch of a single button, start directing the phone with respect to search (already there), mapping, text messaging and emailing. And none of this half-assed voice control where you can get part of the task done but then have to hunt and peck, copy and paste. All this hullaballoo about a physical versus touch screen keyboard would all go away if we could get a better voice-based interface. Thanks, Dragon, for giving us iPhone users a gentle nudge in the right direction.

Next, location-based awareness. After a heavy-duty case of suspicious paranoia, I am growing to like the location-based applications. Obviously, common sense in using such applications goes a long way here. I would like to see more interactivity with these services. Granted there are lots of iPhone and a growing number of Android applications that employ them. But better integration and more features would be nice. I also see a great outlet for local business with these tools and hope to see more businesses employing the location services to encourage customers and clients. Integrating location awareness with your own Contacts list will push mobile communication further into the future – “gee, where is my client or brother-in-law right now? He should be here at our face to face.”

Mobile shopping – hooking up your payment information with your mobile phone so that you can use it to pay for goods and services. Its coming. We already have built-in bar code reader apps  that allow us to pull product and price information. There are a few companies working on mobile payment systems, most recently and notably, Square backed by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. This service will allow anyone to accept a card payment without pricey credit card arrangements with the swipe of a card through a dongle attached to a computer’s or phone’s audio jack. Pretty cool. Let’s see where it goes in 2010.

Let’s speed up the Web! While we already have 802.11 n out there, the iPhone is still using b / g. Why? Mobile means moving, which should mean fast. So let’s beef up the Wi/Fi and Bluetooth (3.0) in these little guys, so they can move with the best of ’em. And while “they” are at it, please, please, please, help those poor Blackberry users to get a better Web-browsing experience! I never use my Curve’s browser because it hurts far too much.

As more and more of the computing experience moves skyward, we will need the best access possible to the cloud through these mobile devices. Google, a heavy hitter in cloud-based tech, needs to do a better job making access to the cloud easier on platforms other than Android. Little, portable phones and tablets should be gateways to the cloud, offering free and easy ingress and egress.  Yet I still struggle with accessing Gmail, my reader subscriptions and cloud-based information on the iPhone. It needs to get better if cloud champions want to win the hearts and minds of the computing public.

The imminent Tablet explosion, heralded by the promised introduction of the highly-rumored Apple tablet, will certainly push the mobile computing envelope. It will be interesting to see what tricks hardware and software developers have up their sleeves to win the wallets and devotion of the tech masses. In short, I hope Apple makes its tablet affordable.

And, at least with respect to the iPhone, there must be a means for multi-tasking. The modern computing generation is not content with performing a single task at a time in a linear fashion. We need to have several jobs running, several irons getting hot in the fire, at any given moment. Why is it that the iPhone can’t or doesn’t provide the ability to do two or more things at once? I don’t buy the battery argument, as there are devices out there that can do it. Perhaps Apple is worried that multi-tasking would open the flood gates on the data-hoggish device and overwhelm poor, little ATT. But that still doesn’t explain why I can’t leave an app open and running while I compose an email. And, while I am at the rant, where the heck is my tethering, ATT??????

Maybe this last one is an impossible dream, but I am sick and tired of getting tied to multi-year contracts when I agree to buy a phone and use a service. Maybe 2010 will see some inroads in this regard. Maybe Google will shake things up a bit with its imminent Nexus One phone. Unlocked cell phones may become the new black of the tech world.

One can dream, can’t one?

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Get Your Credits On The Run

CLE Mobile IconNot to be outdone by the relatively recent Lexis app, Thompson West has announced the release of a new mobile app, CLE Mobile, promising to provide a more “mobile-friendly” means for lawyers to secure CLE credits. More than 2,000 CLE courses are available through the app, audio book-style. While the app itself is free, as is the West LegalEdCenter account and one ethics course, the space between the lines in the West release infers cost for the courses themselves (of course). West assures that the app complies with all requisite regulatory safeguards. Read more about the app here and visit the iTunes app link here to download it yourself.

CLE Mobile Screen shot

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