Always On, Everywhere

I grew up in Norway and lived there until I was 20. After more than 20 years of living in the U.S., I decided to try to spend time in the old country in the summer so I could be closer to my family and old friends. It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to summer in Scandinavia, yet it has its challenges, especially with work.

My wife and I have jobs that require us to be in constant communication with our teams and colleagues. Is it possible to marry ambitious, demanding professional careers with a desire to maintain family ties thousands of miles from our regular workplace? I’m convinced the answer can be, and increasingly will be, yes for many professions.

The past few years, I’ve experimented with different technologies and ways to stay in touch while off the grid. This year, I took the plunge with a setup that lets me be always on while in Norway, 3,000 miles from my regular workplace.

To complicate things further, I’m not “just” in Norway. I’m on our summer home in Norway — a sailboat. My challenge has been to create a productive means of working onboard. I’ve written before about being virtual and living on a laptop, so here I am pushing the envelope for what it means to be virtual. I’ll spend my summer in the land of the midnight sun. I intend it to have a minimal effect on my productivity and ability to work with colleagues who expect me to always be on and in constant contact.

My company is a small online consumer service startup, with employees in several U.S. locations. I don’t go to an office every day to see my team and collaborate with them, I go online. So whether in Norway on a sailboat or in San Francisco, always-on connectivity and new tools for communication are key.

My laptop is the hub. It’s become a tool for communication and creative expression in more dimensions than I could have imagined just a few years ago. I’ve had visions of what I’d like to see happen but no idea how fast much of my vision could become reality.

The laptop is my tool for obvious tasks, such as writing columns and writing and reviewing business plans and financials. I use it for project management and to work on product and service specifications. I write code, too, so my entire development environment is on the laptop. I use Photoshop to review creative and user interface designs. I use my laptop for competitive analysis, research, and access to news and information — over the Web, of course.

Though I use my laptop for other obvious tasks, such as reading and writing email and IM (define), it’s rapidly expanding to include voice communications as well. Skype and Vonage let me check voice mail and, on a good day, speak and even videoconference from a small cove on the coast of Norway to Boston or San Francisco for the price of a local phone call or less.

I communicate constantly with investors, partners, and lawyers, in addition to my team members. I expect quick turnaround and responsiveness from the people I work with, so it’s a requirement for me as well. With a nine-hour time difference between here and California, it’s almost always easier to connect online rather than by phone.

On the personal front, we have friends we want to stay in touch with and bills to pay, in-laws visiting us, and travel arrangements to make. Laptop, laptop, laptop.

The laptop is an island unless it can link to the world around it. Though some cities promise “blanket” Wi-Fi (define) coverage, Wi-Fi doesn’t come close to guaranteeing coverage always and everywhere. I can’t rely on it to connect me outside a few hotels, Internet cafés, and friends homes. The hypothesis I’m testing this summer is once my laptop is always on, everywhere, things will change in dramatically.

Norway is among the most advanced nations in the world when it comes to deployment and use of mobile technologies. It’s a wireless petri dish –a good place to experiment with always-on, everywhere, living and working on a sailboat.

This year, 3G (define) wireless networks, based on the UMTS (define) standard, are being switched on all over the country, increasingly all over Europe, in many Asian countries, and gradually in the U.S. UMTS enables fast, high-speed wireless data services. It’s so fast I barely notice a difference between it and the wire-line DSL (define) provided by SBC to my home in San Francisco.

When I’m not in an urban area with better UMTS coverage, the wireless service reverts to GPRS (define), an older standard that still provides acceptable bandwidth. Using these services on my laptop, I can browse and chat as much as I want for the cost of a loaded cable TV subscription. I have an “all I can eat” data subscription for $70 a month, with no limits on how long I can stay online or how much bandwidth I can use.

Seventy dollars a month! No big, expensive, gyroscopically stabilized satellite receivers with $1 per minute access fees. My always-on, everywhere experiment must function within a communications budget comparable to what I pay at my home base.

I’ve found myself sitting on board at a dock in a fishing village or at anchor in a quaint cove and getting funny looks from passersby. They’re not sure whether to laugh at the nerd with his laptop in the middle of a beautiful fjord or to shake their heads in disbelief that someone would work 10 to 12 hour days while on a beautiful sailboat. “Get a life,” they may be thinking. I like to think of it as a pretty amazing improvement over a standard issue, 10 x 8 cubicle.

Always-on, everywhere connectivity on a budget is a reality. It still requires some research and a bit of technical knowledge. But if the experiment in the petri dish called Norway is any indication, get ready for wide-area connectivity to change the way we work and play in profound and unexpected ways.

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