It’s old, it’s been bashed about, and it has several bits that don’t work any more – not including the ones that have actually broken off – but it goes with me pretty much everywhere. OK, maybe not to Tesco’s or to the pub, and I have to confess that I never think about it accompanying me to the beach on a weekend… but if it’s not physically with me then it’s usually nearby, at worst tucked away at the place I’m currently residing, ready to spring into action when needed.
It is, of course, my trusty PowerBook G4.
And no mere PowerBook is this. It is now part of my being, virtually a family member. Not that this is a deliberate situation or one that I would dote on or otherwise mention in public, but on the rare occasions when I’ve travelled more than an hour or so away from it I feel strangely… vulnerable.
But even when partnered with my trusty steed, there are times when it feels that I’ve become detached and lost from the world around me.
These are, of course, the times when I don’t have Internet access.
Now, despite a large part of my professional life requiring me to be a techie and to go about uttering strange incantations and delivering edicts to the great unwashed to whom all-things-computer are anathema, I like to think that I am, generally speaking, a fairly well adjusted and normal human being.
I brought my anorak to keep the rain off, not to discuss it incessantly when in polite company. But the Internet has managed to ingratiate itself into my life to the point where its presence feels as normal as electricity or television. When not actively working, I’m usually dipping in-and-out of Web sites reading the news, looking up odd bits of strange trivia, or reading the opinion of someone dedicated to some obscure interest I have a curiosity in at that moment. eBay’ing while watching EastEnders. Oh yes, and real work too, of course.
The great enabler here, at least for the majority of my out-of-hours personal indulgence, is broadband: the Internet on tap and online, available 24/7. When your connection is permanent and you become part of the Internet full-time, the Internet has a habit of becoming a part of you in return.
“What were the lyrics to that song by you-know-who?” someone piped up during an evening with friends. Five seconds on Google and everyone is uttering “Ah, yes”, and the evening continues on it’s merry way. The technology is forgotten. The Internet becomes part of the furniture.
The problems start once it’s taken away.
For my sins I lead a split life. I mainly work in London, but I tend to top-and-tail the working week at home some 200 miles distant. When I’m in the office there is high-speed Internet on tap. When at home there is broadband (made even more all-pervasive by its effortless partnership with a wireless network) Unfortunately, that leaves a few holes in my almost subconscious dependency on Internet access.
The first hole is my ‘second’ home – the place I stay when in town. It has no Internet access, and there is no point in me installing broadband as I’m only there for a few hours a couple of times a week and, assuming I’m distracted by television and caffeine, I can cope without it (emergencies aside).
The second hole is travelling. I don’t travel as much as I used to, but on occasion I will find myself elsewhere. Sans broadband.
My personal gratification aside, my work requires that I have network access for various things, especially during certain business emergencies. There are times when things will go wonky and I just need to be online. Therefore, I have gathered a small arsenal of tricks, tactics and backup plans for just those occasions because, as expected, the wonkiness will always happen at the least convenient time. In my case, that’ll be when my Internet access is at it’s slowest or even non-existent.
Dial-up with Backup
It may be old hat, but plain-old-modem dial-up is still an essential part of my toolkit. Using the phone may not be as glitzy as broadband, but dial-up can get you out of a lot of holes. Being a PowerBook user, I have a built-in modem at my disposal, and aside from my normal dial-up Internet account I also maintain a spare ‘backup’ account with another provider, just for those times my backup plan needs its own backup. Neither of these accounts cost me anything (except call costs when used) as the first is provided with my broadband account and the second is via one of the free 0845 dialup providers of which there are still many in the UK (my usual choice being FreeUK). Like RAM, disk space and email addresses, you can never have too many dial accounts, and having a spare one or two means that you’re not at the mercy of a particular Internet provider having network trouble just when you least need them to.
Even more so than dial-up accounts, multiple email accounts are an essential tool to avoid provider-inflicted problems. There are now so many email providers, both of the free and pay-for varieties that you’ll be spoilt for choice. Aside from my primary work email address, I also maintain a smattering of personal ones (for general Internet use, for family and friends, etc), and a .Mac account, as well as several accounts at free email providers. No matter where I am, as long as I have access to a browser I have access to all of those accounts. Each account has slightly different characteristics (be it easier to use, have a larger mailbox allowance or whatever). Why so many? Aside from keeping my various email identities – such as work and personal – separate, and also keeping well-meaning marketing messages (ahem!) from Web sites I’ve signed up to out of my most important mailboxes, experience has taught me another important fact : if your client is desperate to receive that important file from you the chances are they really don’t care what email address it comes from, as long as they get the file from you on time.
One Mac and it’s Phone
For the times when there’s no available telephone line to hand, my trusty mobile phone comes in to play. I carry a Sony Ericsson P900 smartphone that is more like a phone-cum-PDA than a basic handheld. Aside from being a phone, the P900 sports the usual array of PDA-style applications (contacts database, calendar, etc) but importantly it has several useful communications features:
Firstly, it can act as a modem for my PowerBook. This is achieved without the use of wires by the wonder of Bluetooth wireless networking. My PowerBook is from the pre-Bluetooth age, so I need to keep a little plug-in USB Bluetooth dongle in my little bag of tricks, but with the dongle attached my PowerBook can communicate with the phone. It’s here that the PowerBook shows its mettle over the average Windows laptop: Bluetooth support is part of Mac OS X, and setting up a connection (known as a pairing in Bluetooth parlance) to a device such as a phone is a complete doddle via the built-in wizard. Many are the tales of Windows users struggling to get Bluetooth drivers running reliably, although Microsoft has finally moved towards addressing this in its newly released Service Pack 2 for Windows XP.
Bluetooth does more than allow the PowerBook to use the phone as a modem. Bluetooth also provides the underlying connection allowing Apple’s iSync software to talk to the phone and synchronize my Address Book and iCal calendars and to-do's to the phone’s contact and calendar databases, which has an added use we will get to later. There are a few issues with synchronizing to the P900, usually relating to more esoteric contact fields picking up the wrong values, but I tend to stick to using only the basics (name, email, phone number, address) and generally don’t have too much trouble.
The second key feature of the P900 is that it supports GPRS network connections. Unlike GSM mobile dial-up, which is slow and like voice calls is charged by the length of call, GPRS is charged by the amount of data sent-and-received. With GPRS you can (somewhat) emulate an always-on connection – you don’t need to worry about how long you’re connected, just how much data you’re moving around (so yes, it pays to stick to short emails).
The key issue with setting up any modem (or phone) to work with a Mac is to get the right modem script for your device. On running the Bluetooth wizard to pair to the P900, my Mac doesn’t pick the right working modem script, leaving a non-working connection. You may need to experiment in a bit of trial-and-error depending on the phone you have.
There are several sources for suitable scripts on the Internet, for all sorts of phones. One good place to start is Ross Barkman’s page. A swift search for your phone model (or phrases like ‘GPRS’) on VersionTracker often helps. NovaMedia has taken this one step further with its Mobile High Speed software, which acts like a super-wizard for configuring various types of phones on various mobile networks, both GPRS (2G) and high-speed 3G services. MHS generally seems to be able to automatically detect the type of phone you have and the network you’re on – at least, it can spot my P900 on Orange no trouble – but it seems to exhibit some odd user interface and programming behaviour that can leave you frustrated when it doesn’t work, especially as it’s relatively expensive for a one-time configuration tool.
My worst problem is self-inflicted: I’m an incessant fiddler and am always tweaking settings or trying new things out, so when I’m in need of a quick connection my Mac is usually unwilling to play without extra housekeeping. My advice here: once you’ve got it to work, don’t fiddle. On a related issue – which may be down to the fact that my aging machine doesn’t have Bluetooth built-in – I often find that if the PowerBook throws a fit, then deleting its Bluetooth pairing and setting it up from scratch cures numerous ills. Just in case that doesn’t work and the Mac and P900 decide to have a badly timed falling out, I have a final trick up my sleeve: I still have my previous phone handset, an old Nokia model that has Bluetooth and GPRS support and proved itself to be a reliable performer. I usually stash the Nokia in the bottom of my bag in case my phone-du-jour doesn’t want to play.
Phone sans PowerBook
The P900, like a number of other phones in the smartphone camp, has one final – albeit non Mac-related – trick, which has proved useful on numerous occasions: its own built-in email client. You can use the P900 on its own to send and receive emails. This means you can go out packing just a handset in your pocket (rather than a full-on laptop) and still have email access on the go. OK, so you won’t be emailing War and Peace to anyone, but for keeping in touch and checking out important email messages it can be invaluable. SMS is useful for sending short alerts, but can’t compete with email for moving words around.
Via its GRPS connection I keep my P900 scheduled to regularly check for email, but as a heavy email user I don’t let the P900 poll my normal mailbox (which would overload it in a jiffy and also inflict a fatal wound to my finances once the GPRS bill arrived). Instead, I have it poll a separate mailbox to which, via rules, I forward urgent messages, plus those from certain colleagues and other key contacts.
The P900 also packs a mini Web browser too (in fact, two, as a copy of the mobile version of Opera is also included), which is perfect for those moments when I need a Macworld Online fix while on the move!
There are other mobiles and devices available with similar capabilities to the P900, including devices based on the Palm OS (such as the Treo 600) and on PocketPC (such as the XDA II, also known as the Orange M1000). Some of these devices are more PDA-than-phone, and can be more flexible and powerful, but for me the P900 for now provides the best combination of phone-with-PDA features with support for OS X and iSync. However, the new-and-improved P910i is due to ship soon…
Wireless WiFi networking – known as AirPort to most Mac users – doesn’t need much introduction, and any Mac equipped with an AirPort card can access the Internet via the growing number of WiFi hotspots popping up around the country in hotels, airports, train station and coffee shops.
If there happens to be a hotspot where you are, or if you can hunt one down near by, they can be a good option for mobile usage. The downsides are, aside from finding them, the cost and the fact that as wireless networks have limited range you have to be pretty much on the premises to use them.
Numerous WiFi hotspot providers exist in the UK, ranging from the big networks (as WiFi goes!) including The Cloud and BT OpenZone to smaller players including independent hotspots plus those covered by global roaming aggregators such as iPass (see later).
Costs vary: for example, BT has several options for accessing the OpenZone network, ranging from monthly subscriptions to pre-paid vouchers and per-minute access. At the other end of the scale, you may get limited free access to a hotspot if you purchase a cup of coffee in a WiFi-enabled cafe. The WiFi market is still relatively new, small and splintered, so it pays to do a little research into the places or locations you’re visiting and which providers and networks offer access there.
Further from Home
On a personal front, my jet-setting days of international business travel are far behind me, assuming they were ever there in the first place, but many people zoom around the world with their laptops in tow. The world is packed with Internet cafes (useful if you just need to use a Web browser), and hotels are increasingly catering for laptop users. However, working out the details of how to use the local access option (if there is one) is often fraught with difficulties, if not extortionate charges as well. If you travel regularly, then an account with either a global ISP (that’d be AOL then) or better, one of the global ISP alliances such as iPass or GoRemote is essential. If your ISP is business-focused this may be an option included within your existing local dial or broadband account or may be available as a paying option.
My main Internet dial account, though little-used now I have broadband at home, is iPass-enabled. Using the iPass-provided phonebook/dialler software, iPassConnect, I can fire up an Internet connection wherever I am simply by selecting a country name, city and then local access number from a simple pop-up list. Aside from the local telephone call charge, access incurs a small usage charge (because you’re using a local ISP’s connection) but it’s far cheaper than dialling direct, usually only a few US dollars per hour depending on your location.
Aside from dial-up, like most similar providers iPass has been extending by incorporating access to WiFi hotspot networks, including those from T-Mobile in the US and Swisscom (among others) in Europe, and these also show up in the phone book software for easy click-and-select use. Costs for WiFi access are higher than dial-up, and of course you need to be at the hotspot in order to use it, but employing WiFi using a provider such as iPass can reduce the pain of finding new hotspots as you travel.
The Power of iSync and .Mac
I keep a .Mac account. Yes, I know, being a bit of a techie I could whip up my own .Mac-a-like service out of Apache server, some scripts and sticky-backed-plastic, but I just don’t have the time, or when I do there are usually better toys to play with. As well as an extra email account, a .Mac account has a couple of useful extra tricks that can help in a sticky situation, thanks to iSync.
Now, as already mentioned, I fire up iSync to synchronize my Address Book and iCal to my phone. While it’s doing that, iSync automatically syncs them both to my .Mac account as well (as well as to my iPod, but that’s another story). It also throws in my Safari Web bookmarks. These all sound like fairly twee features, useful only if you want to later then sync to another (eg. home) Mac.
I’m in an Internet café in Berlin. I have access to a browser. I’m without my PowerBook and my phone battery is toast because I forgot to charge it the night before. No problem, as from any Web browser I can log in to my .Mac account and see my entire, up-to-date address book. I can also instantly find that obscure Web page I bookmarked a while ago detailing cool-things-to-do-when-in-Berlin. Problem solved.
A frivolous example perhaps, but until you need it, you really don’t know how useful the .Mac and iSync combo can be, especially when it’s all running automatically so you don’t have to remember to run it yourself.
I have a loaded PowerBook, and I’m not afraid to use it
There is no single, simple answer to keeping in touch from anywhere. Keeping an entire arsenal of options available will give you the most power at your fingertips when you find yourself elsewhere and that important email just has to get through. My own cache of weapons includes multiple connectivity choices – including both wired and mobile dial-up, WiFi, and global roaming. Also multiple service options, such as holding several email accounts with different providers. If you ever go out and about with your own laptop, you should pack your own weapons-of-mass-connectivity too.
Scott Bartlett is Technical Director (among other things) at BTA Limited, the networking and Internet services specialists. He suffers from having far too many computers in his life, but still centres that life around his trusty PowerBook.