A Pragmatic Approach to Mobile Computing

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I have always been reluctant to call myself a geek. The popular definition sees geeks as technically adept people working in highly specialized fields. I would have less reluctance to call myself one given today's emerging definition of a geek. Geeks are people who are fans of a particular interest and they carry out their devotion with a passion. So I am a geek by that standard. I hold a particular interest in computer hardware, open source technology and volunteer work. I'm not particularly savvy at any of those fields of interest, but I talk about them with a fervor that can only be matched by street preacher.

One thing that particularly interests me is making technology work for the layman. Living in a country like the Philippines, most people do not have access to the latest in gadgetry or computer parts. I take a more pragmatic approach by making the most of what is available and focusing on cost versus utility. Let me draw a comparison. In the US, mobile computing would mean having a decently spec'd laptop with a powerful processor or a PDA-phone at the least. A broadband wireless connection is also necessary to keep you connected wherever you may roam. All three are available in the country today. However, the cost would be prohibitive save for executives and businessmen. It isn't really worth your money to spend that much when your budget or your needs don't justify it. So I tell friends they can have the same mobility for less.

With internet shops situated in just about any street or corner of the city, I find it much more cost effective to just carry a thumb drive. USB thumb drives go for around 700 to 900 pesos for one that can hold 4 gigabytes worth of files. To make it more useful, load it up with the open source software package called Portable Apps. Portable Apps comes with a browser, email client, IM client, office suite, anti-virus and a bevy of smaller apps that extend its usability. The advantage of Portable Apps is in the way it behaves. All the apps are self-contained and will work off the USB drive without the need to install it in the host machine. That means plug it in to any Windows machine and it'll run. When your done just pull it out and walk away. All your settings and files will be preserved on the drive. It beats having to lug around a 7-pound laptop any day.

The next cheapest option is already in your pocket - your phone. Think about it. You carry it around. You never leave home without it. You can connect to the internet with it. The challenge is choosing a phone that will let you do browse, email and IM. One of the cheapest options is the LG KU250 with a street price of around 6,000 pesos. It's a 3-G phone that can be quite usable if your willing to exert a little effort. Installing the Opera Mini browser will make viewing sites not optimized for phones easier. If you have a Google Mail (Gmail) account, you can download an app that allows you to access your email directly without a browser. IM on this phone is a little limited though. You'll have to access your IM accounts through web-based services like Meebo. The only downside to using a phone is the small keypad. This isn't a deal-breaker for you folks who can type 30++ words per minute on your phones though.

If you're still looking for the full functionality of a PC in a small package, then consider the miniature wonder that is the Asus Eee PC. It's a tiny 7-inch laptop that's equipped with wifi. Calling it tiny may be a bit of an understatement. This thing weighs a little more than a pound. Given its svelte proportions, its small screen will require some squinting and its small keyboard can be difficult to type on. No worries for those of you who have LCD monitors, keyboards and mice waiting at your desks. The Eee PC can output to a monitor and has USB ports for connecting your keyboard and mice. Away from your desk, you'll have to make do typing with your index fingers. It's most useful for typing up short documents and emailing on the go. As with most PCs nowadays, it already comes with a browser, email client and an office suite pre-installed. The Eee PC price ranges from 17,000 to 19,000 pesos, depending on where you buy it.

When all is said and done, there is a solution for everyone's budget. Pick a solution that suits your needs and hopefully it won't kill your wallet.

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