Top 10 Tools for a Mobile Office

Tuesday Jun 1st 2010 by James A. Martin
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With the summer vacation season coming, now's the time to get your mobile apps, mobile tools and mobile devices together.

Picture you, soaking up the sun on a beautiful beach, an umbrella drink in one hand, a suntan-lotion-smeared paperback in the other. It's summer, and you're on a much-needed vacation. And then your BlackBerry starts buzzing.

So much for getting away from it all. But let's look at the bright side: Thanks to mobile devices, many small business owners can take an extended leave of absence from the office. And the best part is that practically no one will be the wiser. With a fast Internet connection, a smartphone, a laptop or netbook, and a few other mobile tools, you can rule your fiefdom from virtually anywhere.

So, in honor of the soon-to-arrive Summer Solstice, here are the top 10 mobile office tools and small business technology the entrepreneur on-the-go should have. I haven't included a laptop, netbook, or smartphone on this list, on the assumption you've already got what you need in those departments.

1. A Broadband Internet Connection

If the hotel, beach cottage or other place where you're hiding out has a Wi-Fi hotspot, you're good to go. If not, there are many ways to take a broadband Internet connection with you.

One option is to buy a 3G modem (for about $50-$100) that fits into a laptop or netbook USB port and an accompanying data service plan from AT&T, Sprint, Verizon or T-Mobile. (Some netbooks and laptops, as well as some iPads, have 3G modems built in.)

Problem is, those 3G mobile network service plans can get expensive over time. AT&T's DataConnect 5GB plan, for instance, costs $60 per month -- and you'd be surprised how quickly you can burn through 5GB. You'll pay $0.00048 per kilobyte (KB) for data usage beyond the 5GB in any given month with AT&T's plan, too. Also, you're subject to an early termination fee if you discontinue the service after the 30-day trial period but before the one-year contract ends.

Another option is the Novatel Wireless MiFi, which transforms a 3G data network signal into a Wi-Fi hotspot that can be shared by multiple devices. The downside: The data plans from Verizon and Sprint you'll need require one- or two-year contracts, with early termination fees.

If you don't want to get locked into a contract, consider Virgin Mobile's Broadband2Go. Buy the $100 USB 3G modem, then pick the pay-as-you-need-it plan you want -- anything from $10 for 100MB over 10 days to $60 for 5GB per month. We've used this service on several trips and recommend it.

2. Google Voice and Skype

Google Voice is a free call transfer/voicemail service that can make life a lot easier for mobile professionals. You get one number that rings simultaneously on multiple lines, such as your mobile and landline office phones, or even the landline at that mountain cottage you're renting for August. You can answer calls using whichever phone you're closest to at the moment.

Calls that go to voicemail are transcribed (though not very accurately) and e-mailed to you, if desired.

Google Voice is also a great way to reduce your cell phone bill, whether you travel or not. With Google Voice, I have the option to answer incoming calls on my landline instead of on my iPhone, where those calls would eat into my cell phone minutes. Nearly all of my SMS messages go to my Google Voice number, where I receive them as e-mails, which also reduces my wireless bill.

At the moment, Google Voice is still invitation only, though you can request an invite. And though Google Voice has lots of features, some basics are still missing. For example, you can only record calls you receive, not those you make. But if you can live within those limitations, Google Voice is a terrific way to stay connected to your business contacts.

Though it lacks many of Google Voice's features, the free VoIP service Skype is a great alternative. In addition to making free Skype-to-Skype audio and video chats to anyone around the world, you can also make calls to landline and mobile phones at super low rates. You can use your mobile phone number as your caller ID, which is a big benefit. I've even made Skype calls using the Skype app on my iPad, with surprisingly good results.

3. OoVoo Videoconferencing

While you're away, you can still have face-to-face meetings, at least virtually, with your employees or team.

The Skype software in wide use today only allows video chats with up to two people, though a free beta version of Skype for Windows lets you hold video conferences with up to five people. And the feature isn't currently offered for Mac users, though that's not a huge issue. The Mac OS includes Apple's free iChat software, which has made multi-party video chats possible with other iChat users for several years now.

Another option is OoVoo, a videoconferencing service with a variety of plans. The basic free plan allows for two-way video calls, while multi-party plans range from $10 to $40 per month. Among OoVoo's more advanced features are the capabilities to record and send video messages; record video and audio calls; share your desktop; and embed a video chat room on a website. (Most of these features aren't available in the free plan.)

4. FreeConference Conference Calling

When you're away from your office phone system, setting up conference calls might be a bit more problematic. That's where services like FreeConference can help.

I've used FreeConference for years. It's extremely easy to use. And like its name implies, you can schedule multi-party conference calls for free, as long as those participating don't mind call a toll number. You can also set up conferences using toll-free dial-in numbers for 10 cents per minute per participant using the Web-Scheduled Premium 800 service. Other features include the capability to record calls (free if you use the 800 service) and desktop sharing ($6.50 per use or $9 per month).

5. A Portable NeatReceipts USB Scanner

The Neat company's product line is beautifully simple. The company makes scanners and the accompanying software; that's it. The $200 NeatReceipts product includes a portable scanner and digital document organization software (compatible with Windows or Mac computers). The scanners are thin and light (weight: 10.6 ounces); offer OCR; and can handle receipts, business cards and documents. They're USB powered, too, so you won't have to pack a charger.

6. A Portable HP or PlanOn Printer

If you're staying somewhere for an extended period, you'll probably need the ability to print. The most convenient option is a portable printer. At 4.5 pounds, HP's Officejet H470 Mobile Printer (currently $200 with a $50 rebate) is hefty for travel if you're flying but not so bad if you're going by car. And this low-end model doesn't come with a battery. But it's compact, and you can use regular paper and inkjet cartridges. HP sells two similar portable printer models to business customers as well, which do include a battery and other features.

Those looking for an extremely portable printer should consider the PlanOn PrintStik line ($200 to $350, depending upon the model). The printers measure only 1 in. by 2 in. by 11 in. and weigh 16 ounces. But as Gerry Blackwell points out in his article "Top Ten Mobile Tools for Small Business", the PrintStik uses a thermal printing process, which requires special paper. Printing is slow, and the output is "far from presentation quality," Blackwell writes.

7. Online Printing Via PrinterOn

If you have only occasional printing needs while you're away, you might give PrinterOn a try. The Web-based printing service lets you send print jobs from a smartphone, laptop or any application to a variety of locations, such as hotel business centers. Prices start around 10 cents per page (black and white) and go up to 40 cents per page (color).

8. A Free eFax Account

Incredible though it may seem, some people still send faxes. And the best way to receive them is as email attachments, which you can do with a free eFax account. The freebie account, which eFax does its best to hide on its website, is fairly limited, not surprisingly. You aren't likely to get a dedicated fax number in your own area code, for instance. Still, if you just have an occasional need to receive faxes while you're on the go, or even when you aren't, a free eFax account might be all you need.

9. A Portable Keyboard and Mouse

Yes, I know. Your laptop or netbook already has a keyboard and input device. But if you plan to use your portable computer for hours at a time, you need a better ergonomic setup. (Sleeping on a bed of nails would be more comfortable than typing on a netbook all day.)

For sheer portability, Apple's sleek, compact sliver of aluminum Wireless Keyboard ($69) is ideal for travel and connects wirelessly to Macs via Bluetooth. (Sorry, it's not Windows compatible.) Logitech's stylish diNovo Edge keyboard for Windows computers (about $160 or more online) includes its own built-in navigation controls so you can forgo an external mouse, and it connects via Bluetooth. It's also rechargeable, freeing you from having to hunt for replacement batteries.

As for an external mouse, you could pack the one you use in your office. Or pick up Microsoft's USB Compact Optical Mouse 500, which is only $13 on Amazon.

10. A Checkpoint Friendly Laptop Bag

Having to remove your laptop from its bag to run the TSA gauntlet at airports can slow you down, particularly if you travel alot. A number of laptop bag makers offer checkpoint friendly versions. One that we've used and recommend is Tom Bihn's Checkpoint Flyer. At $220, it's pricey, but it's durable and thoughtfully designed.

James A. Martin is the co-author ofGetting Organized in the Google Era. He writes about SEO and helps businesses optimize their sites for search engines.

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