The office of the future heads for cyberspace

The office of the future heads for cyberspace

Despite some hassles, connectivity is available for remote users



Second of a series

Last week's review of the office of the future covered top-of-the-line network clients, backbones, storage and peripherals. Outside the office, however, the future looks a little different.

This review focuses on the mobile user who makes frequent use of office resources but only occasionally works in the office itself.


In our June 18 issue, the GCN Lab explored the in-office hardware and software necessary to build a bleeding edge systems environment using products that are available today [GCN, June 18, Page 40].

On July 2, the lab will test the brains behind the hardware: new office suites from Corel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. and new high-end productivity packages.

Practically every government traveler knows the pitfalls of trying to get work done with data on the office network. Just reaching the data can be a job in itself, even if the network administrator has arranged for easy remote access. And dial-up speeds are often dismal at best.

If your hotel has broadband connectivity and your notebook PC has a network port, you're in business'maybe. But most users on the road must settle for a standard phone line. A hotel private branch exchange delivers a maximum 33.6-Kbps connection'more often about 19 Kbps. Even if you can dial in to a nontoll number, many hotels charge you for each connection.

Now think how much more work you could get done if you connected wirelessly to your office network while sitting in an airport, train or cab'no need to wait till you get to the hotel.

That's why we chose for this mobile office of the future review only products that deliver good, fast connectivity on the road.

Believe it or not, such connectivity is already available in some metropolitan areas. We even found a wireless print server that can print documents in your office from almost anywhere in the world. And you can print without logging on to the network, so security isn't compromised.

Before we get into the intricacies of wireless connectivity, we must establish a platform. Handheld computing devices are fine for basic functions such as e-mail, but let's assume that you as a traveling government employee need your standard Microsoft Windows applications. For the time being, that means carrying a notebook PC.

You can go one of two ways, each with tradeoffs. Large, fast but heavy notebooks pack all the peripherals you need with a double- or triple-spindle design. Subnotebooks weigh 3.5 pounds or less, but they don't have top-speed processors and require you to swap out CD-ROM or floppy drives.

Later this year the GCN Lab plans a full roundup of new notebooks, but for this review we chose two notebooks, one from the heavyweight camp and one of the stripped-down variety. Both gave good road service as mobile computing platforms.

Of all the notebooks we tried out when making our selections, the Panasonic Toughbook 48 performed the best. By that, we mean that we fiddled with it the least and found it well prepared for road hazards.

The Toughbook 48, a semi-rugged unit with a 700-MHz Pentium III processor, was powerful enough to run Microsoft Office XP, Adobe Photoshop 6 and several utility programs. And it was tough enough for minor travel disasters.


Toughbook 48

Panasonic Personal Computer Co.; Secaucus, N.J.; tel. 800-662-3537

Price: $2,299 with 700-MHz processor

+Rugged enough for travel
+Easily readable screen
+Fast processsor
+Good value

The Toughbook 48 survived the following mishaps in a month of testing: Hot tea was spilled over it at Washington's Union Station; it was crushed in the overhead bin of a crowded cross-continent flight to Los Angeles; hot mustard got dripped on it on a train to New York; security personnel dropped it at Dulles Airport; it was rained on during a wait for valet parking at a hotel; and it sweltered inside a hot car trunk on the infamous Washington Beltway. Two other notebooks we tested were dead before the month was up.

The Toughbook 48 is no $5,000, military-specification notebook built to survive bombing runs'you can read about such wonders in a review next month. The semi-ruggedized Toughbook sells on General Services Administration Information Technology Schedule for about $2,000, the same as ordinary notebooks, but it will survive mishaps that doom them. It's a great choice for road warriors not actually on the front lines.

It has just about everything you need without making you swap drives: a 24X CD-ROM drive and an Imation SuperDisk LS-120 drive for high-capacity or standard 1.44M disks. And at 7.5 pounds, it's not too big a burden to carry.

At the other end of the spectrum, we got great performance from the small yet powerful Dell Latitude L400. It weighed just 3.5 pounds and measured 10 inches by 8 inches. It wouldn't quite fit inside a shirt pocket, but it slipped nicely into a backpack, carrying case or travel bag.

The little system was fast, too, with a 700-MHz Pentium III processor and a 20G hard drive. The test unit had 10G, more than enough for several full-size applications.

The reason for the L400's thinness was that the floppy and DVD drives were not part of the base unit. They were usable without the external media bay attached, which wouldn't be needed unless you used the serial port, but you would still have to carry the drives, adding weight.


Dell Latitude L400

Dell Computer Corp.; Round Rock, Texas; tel. 800-915-3355

Price: $1,939

+Tiny when detached from base
+Fast performance for a 3.5-pound notebook
-Docking port necessary to use drives

That means, if you want to travel light, the L400 must be loaded in advance with all the programs and files you might need on the road.

There are two problems with this approach. First, you might forget something and be out of luck. Second, some programs run copy protection checks that require inserting the original CD-ROM into the drive'impossible when there's no drive.

The Latitude L400 is ideal for travelers who carry a lot of PowerPoint presentations. You can do just about everything you need without an extra drive once the software is installed.

The Latitude has broadband as well as standard modem ports, so you can connect to the office LAN or through a hotel PBX. Leaving the docking station behind won't keep you from communicating.
Now let's look at the services available for our platforms on the road.

Wireless seems to be the inevitable direction in which enterprise computing is headed. Problem is, the more wireless technology advances, the more potential pitfalls appear.

The wireless market bears a striking resemblance to the early days of cellular: Equipment is bulky and expensive to operate, and connection capabilities are shaky and limited. You have to worry about spotty coverage.

The good news is that wireless services are maturing at a good clip. Depending on where you work and travel, you might be quite satisfied with what you find.

We tested the wireless Ricochet service, which has 128-Kbps bandwidth in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego and San Francisco, as well as at some airports. Seattle and Washington, D.C., have slower 28.8-Kbps service.



Metricom Inc.; San Jose, Calif.; tel. 408-282-3000

Price: Depends on Richochet service provider

+128-Kbps connection speeds in some cities
-Few areas served yet

Depending on where we were, we measured actual connection rates anywhere from
1 Kbps to 174 Kbps. That's quite a range.

Metricom Inc. of San Jose, Calif., built the Ricochet network, but Ricochet authorized service providers (RASPs) are responsible for the wireless connections. In this review we used Wireless WebConnect of Carrollon, Texas, as our RASP for the Merlin Ricochet Wireless Modem from Novatel Wireless Inc. of San Diego.

Wireless WebConnect charges $75 per month for the Ricochet service. If you prepay for one year at $75 per month, you receive one month free and do not pay the $30 activation fee. Wireless WebConnect also sells the Merlin Ricochet modem for $300.

The Merlin Ricochet is a Type II PC Card for any notebook. Setup of the service proved fast and easy. We were up and running in five minutes'well, almost.


Wireless WebConnect

Wireless WebConnect; Carrollton, Texas; tel. 971-416-0022

Price: $75 per month

+Easy connection setup
-Costly and unsatisfactory in 28-Kbps service areas

Problems crop up if you're not in quite the right spot, as happened to us at GCN's offices in Silver Spring, Md., near the Washington border. Washington and its suburbs still have the original 28.8-Kbps Ricochet service, which proved so slow that the modem kept disconnecting.

Unless you will do most of your mobile work in one of the 128-Kbps service areas, you should choose another type of wireless setup. Check the Federal Technology Service's Wireless Store to find, for example, satellite data networks.

We measured impressive connection rates up to 175 Kbps from the Ricochet network in Baltimore. We even got a satisfactory signal deep in an underground garage, where a cell phone and car radio barely worked. Service at Baltimore's Inner Harbor was almost as fast as on the lab's test bed network.

Telecommuting potential will skyrocket as more such broadband wireless networks arise. Employees can work effectively from home without installing special high-speed wired lines.

The Merlin modem had a minor design flaw, however. The antenna moved only left to right and could not fold down or retract. It stuck out of the notebook slot, which was clumsy for travel. We nearly broke off the antenna a few times as we drove around Baltimore testing the connection strength.


Merlin Wireless PC Card Modem

Novatel Wireless Inc.; San Diego; Texas; tel. 408-774-3414

Price: $300

+Easy to install and use
+Connection strength gauge
-Cumbersome antenna design

The Ricochet network consists of so-called microcell radios, located atop utility poles and street lights. When a new microcell radio is activated, it sends out packets looking for neighboring microcells and Ricochet devices to join their existing network.

There are generally five microcells per square mile in a 128-Kbps service area but fewer wired access points'about one every 10 to 20 miles. WAPs translate the data packets for IP networking.
The IP radios look and function like other microcells except that they include Ethernet hardware and software.

Every WAP is connected to a local network interface facility, which acts as a liaison to one of the two Metricom network operations centers in Houston and Plano, Texas. Two NOCs provide redundancy.

The lab earlier reviewed the surveillance functions of the Axis network camera, which included a Web server for administration [GCN, May 21, Page 44]. This time around we looked at a Web server inside a print server.

The Axis 5800 Mobile Print Server makes a handy component for the wireless office of the future. Although security is not a premier feature, the print server's Bluetooth capability lets users print remotely to a network printer in the office without entering the network, thus not compromising security.


Axis 5800 Mobile
Print Server


Axis Communications Inc.; Lund, Sweden; tel. 978-614-2000

Price: $450

+Wireless printing
+Web server embedded
-Expensive and somewhat impractical

To print wirelessly, a notebook PC must have Bluetooth Software Suite 1.07 or a later version installed, plus a Bluetooth PC Card. Alternatively, you could print wirelessly using a mobile phone with Bluetooth capability, such as the Ericsson R520.

Bluetooth is still too limited in scope to justify spending $500 on a wireless device that essentially performs a task that's free on any network server. The embedded Web server does facilitate setup and administration of the device, however.

The 5800 would be a practical choice if your office printers lacked embedded networking. But it has little utility while Bluetooth devices are still scarce, and most printers come with network cards anyhow.

Here's the best part: From Baltimore's Inner Harbor, we wrote up the test results while sitting on a park bench watching ducks swim. We called the lab and asked someone to verify the arrival of the results. When we clicked Print, the document came out of the lab's printer 55 miles away.

The process should work anywhere in the world, given access to your network or to the Internet.

Wireless connectivity has come a long way, and so has mobile technology. There are still problems, but the trailblazers in this market are rapidly working them out. When mobile connectivity truly becomes seamless'and our tests showed it is getting close'the office of the future will take off into cyberspace.


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