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).