Do you know someone (maybe it’s you) who’s "office" is at Starbucks, Panera Bread, or one of the other numerous (usually coffee or food) retailers that offer free wireless? These resourceful tech and business people hold meetings, do their daily work, check their email and update their social media – all from the comfort of a couch or countertop in an essentially public space.

Increasingly, it’s not just individuals using the virtual office – many companies now have no physical office space, and instead ask their employees to work from wherever they call “office”. Another mobile group that I’ll call “co-workers” share office space, admin support, conference rooms, and other physical resources, often for very little cash at the end of the month, and sometimes, even for barter (which is a whole different blog post :).

So, how the heck do they do it? What’s happening is that these folks run their businesses and lives from a set of devices that are getting smaller and ever more portable. Today the laptop is still the workhorse device – where most “real” work gets done – word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, photo and video editing, etc. Next smaller is a slate or tablet-size device that works very well for note-taking, light-duty documents, email, and web-based research. Smallest today is the mobile handset that, besides phone calls, is best for texting, email and limited web browsing (limited because much of the web isn’t yet mobile friendly).

There are a surprisingly large number of choices for the technology that runs behind this new breed of virtual and mobile worker. Within the past year or two, the enabling technology and common denominator between devices has become the cloud. Many of the new wave of software and services run from this ubiquitous cloud – which for this purpose we can consider as any hosted solution. Another notable recent trend is that the smallest devices are getting progressively better apps, plus the trend is to make them dock with keyboards and larger screens so they can be better used for “real” work.

Following is a set of broad categories of apps and technology with some examples – these focus on cloud-based solutions where it makes sense, but generally these still work best on the laptop/slate sized devices. Because cloud-based aps are generally browser-based, fuller functionality will quickly shift to smaller devices as the apps and mobile peripherals rapidly improve. Note that these examples are very much like skipping-the-stone, it’s not by any means an exhaustive list. I also have not separated this list into pay vs. free services, and it represents my personal favorites and biases, plus some pure research.

Consider this a list of menu item categories that can be mixed-and-matched to solve your unique problems. There are many hybrid solutions possible today, and some tools fit easily in more than one category.

There are also many things that aren’t covered here at all – notably mobile apps, organizers, billing and invoicing, image and media management, and the many different types of utilities. Nor is virtualization technology, which I feel will continue to become more important – both for operating systems and applications.

As far as mobile apps go – I haven’t even begun to cover apps for the major phone (WP7, Android, Apple) and device (iPad) markets. The trend now is to carry smaller-and-smaller devices – and to expect that all your data is available on each device that you have. This is why the cloud is so vital – it’s the common-denominator between all your device types. You will soon have the same online “personality” available to you on any device, based on how you login.

Here are a few ideas and tips to consider as you become more of a mobile worker:

  • File backup & transfer: email docs to yourself and CC multiple accounts
  • Public Wi-Fi hotspots
    • don’t use them where possible – use personal mobile hotspots if you can: Verizon My-Fi
    • be aware that others can intercept and read your traffic, including usernames and passwords
    • always select Public Network when Windows prompts on wireless connection
    • use HTTPS/SSL – to encrypt login and web data
    • us a VPN: Hotspot
    • avoid obvious things like online banking or buying online while at a public access point
    • use a personal firewall with intrusion detection
  • if you carry sensitive data – use encryption software!
  • Use a different password for each login you use on the web – this is hard, but worth it!!
  • Keep your computer patched and updated – including Office, Java, Flash, PDF Readers, etc.
  • Software licenses: free Microsoft BizSpark (tech startups), WebsiteSpark (web designers), DreamSpark (students)
  • Educate yourself on Open Source software. For developers and techies – there are lots of good tools available out on CodePlex, GitHub, and SourceForge – this is a great topic for a separate blog post!

Here are a few interesting links for the virtual entrepreneur:

From where we sit now – it’s possible to work very effectively in a completely mobile manner. Today you’re best served using a larger device such as a laptop or slate, but your devices are rapidly becoming smaller. The emergence of the cloud – with more effective applications and the sharing of data and identity across all your sites, will enable huge amounts of change in the near future. There are things happening in so many avenues that in maybe two years we will look back to today and think “how quaint!”.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes – by author William Gibson:

The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.

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