20 June 2008
How smart devices can make the office more efficient
Smart mobile phones, laptops and 3G modems are increasingly available at a modest cost, and coffee shop web access is probably easier to find in a high street than a telephone box. These technologies extend the ability to work away from the office, on site, at home or on the train beyond the basic mobile phone use that has become second nature to us all.
Email is the easiest aspect of remote working to achieve. It is best to have the right infrastructure in your office. Each device that you connect to your email should be looking at the same pot of information. In the office, this is usually achieved with a version of Microsoft’s Exchange Server on a PC or with a product such as Kerio Mail Server for Apple Macs. Both come with the ability to access the information over the web from any convenient computer, giving access to your email account from any computer connected to the internet.
Mail server compatibility
Choosing a mobile phone with an email client that can use Imap or Exchange protocols will ensure it is compatible with your mail server, showing the same emails on your phone as those on your office computer. Blackberries aren’t compatible with Microsoft Exchange servers out of the box, and need additional server software or a remote-syncing service. The main selling point of Blackberries is that they receive push email — you are sent email without asking for it, similar to a text message — more than I think most users need or want.
A 3G compatible phone such as the new version of the Apple iPhone will give you faster download speeds. Most phones only support syncing of diaries and address books direct with your computer — and often only Windows PCs not Macs — rather than live updates over the internet from the server. The larger screen sizes of some smart phones make access to the server version of your diary and address book through the web interface more practical.
If reading email attachments on the move is essential to you, then use a laptop in combination with a 3G USB modem such as those offered by Vodafone. Some contracts provide the modem free and include a reasonable level of data usage within the UK. On a laptop, you will have full access to your software so email attachments, diaries and address books can all be read live from your server.
With the right infrastructure in your office, opportunities for remote working can really open up. Even modestly priced broadband routers such as the Draytek Vigor series can set up usernames and passwords for remote access via VPN (virtual private network). The network speed will be much slower, of course, so it is always better to download the files you want to your local desktop, rather than work on your office server. Consider upgrading your office’s internet connection, particularly with regard to the upload speed, if several people are likely to use the VPN at the same time.
Pattern of use
The most appropriate mobile office solution will be determined by your pattern of use. The smart phone route is always on and convenient for maintaining email contact with the office, even if you are walking to a meeting.
If you need more than basic text-based email, you will have to put up with the constraints of a laptop — somewhere to sit, a shorter battery life, and a bag with all the cables in it! Make sure that whatever remote access devices you use, they are password-protected, and take time to understand the charging structure on your mobile device contract. Mobile data usage when abroad is particularly expensive.
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