Goin' mobile

As the Grouch continuously strives to challenge established boundaries--technological and otherwise: he decided to employ the Scientific Method and conduct a new experiment.

In our increasingly wireless world, the Grouch wondered: how much could one accomplish with just a handheld?

The impetus for this experiment was an incident that occurred in November, 2004. Faced with an impending deadline and no WiFi connectivity (thank you, Shanghai HongQiao Airport), the Grouch employed his phone to serve as computer terminal and word processor, and finished an urgent 300-word story before boarding a flight back to Beijing. Realizing that mobile devices could have much more potent uses than their humdrum lives as phones with address books, the Grouch decided that, for one week, his Powerbook G4 would remain at home, with only his Treo 600 and its folding keyboard permitted to accompany him on his journeys to and fro.

The Treo's MemoPad would permit writing functions, such as the authoring of this column. Its e-mail program and a GPRS card would allow monitoring and response to electronic communication. And the Treo's normal phone functions would provide voice and data links with the rest of the semi-civilized world.

Glitch number one appeared at one in the afternoon on the first day. He received an e-mail indicating that an earlier message had no attachment, and that this would require re-sending. Uh oh. That meant a trip home.

The Grouch is, though, highly pleased with the portability and permitted functionality of the wireless device. Although the Treo has a thumb-keyboard built-in, tapping out more than a text message is uncomfortable. However, with a keyboard only slightly larger and weighing the same as the device itself, high-speed input is a snap.

Day three, a Wednesday, paid real dividends for the mobile lifestyle. In classic Grouch form, he misread the address of an afternoon meeting and ended up in the wrong location. Oriental Plaza instead of Oriental Place. It's like having a meeting in Chai Wan and going to Wan Chai instead.

It also turned out to be one of the hottest days in Beijing so far this year, the Grouch was relieved to be liberated from a large bag and its contents. Instead, a small handful of gear put him back in business, with the iPod Shuffle on hand to block out the screeching of the middle aged woman at the next table.

The Grouch remembers well when he first started toting his laptops to Starbucks in Beijing. Having that first clamshell iBook in the capital certainly made some Starbuckians choke on their freshly foamed coffee drinks. Now that things have gone down in size, he's drawing stares again. And as usual, he doesn't care.

Isn't this what technology is all about? Isn't this why humans started using tools in the first place, to make the tasks that face us easier and faster?

Funny-as the Grouch types his column, he is approached by someone from PalmSource in California, who spots the Grouch's Treo and keyboard while on vacation in Beijing. The revolution spreads.

The Grouch is frankly surprised and pleased at the results of his mobile experiment. As the temperature rises across China, the idea of lugging around the space heater known as his Powerbook seems less and less attractive. If a mobile device can effectively take its place, then a new paradigm is achieved.

Not having continuous Internet access left the Grouchmind wandering in between tasks, but frankly, this is probably more blessing than curse. How much time do we waste on instant messaging, or Googling Black Sabbath lyrics?

This hypothesis was put to the test further when the Grouch went to western Zhejiang province to go scuba diving last weekend. The Grouchbook was carefully packed in anticipation of the hyped in-room DSL but-shock of shocks-things turned out to be not as promised in China.

It mattered not. For four days, the Grouch kept in touch with the cyberworld at large via Treo.

What the Grouch believes all of this proves is that we may take one more step towards liberation from our desks and offices. Technology, ultimately, serves humankind by making our lives easier, whether it's by traversing huge distances instantaneously, or being able to start a fire more quickly and easily than rubbing two sticks together. Sent from my Treo.

This story, "Goin' mobile" was originally published by Computerworld Hong Kong.

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