There is nothing like severe weather to make you appreciate the benefits of a highly mobile workforce, whether you are the worker, safely ensconced in a warm & dry location, or the business owner, suddenly managing a half-empty office but confident the wheels of commerce are still turning. Thanks to declining technology costs and pervasive internet, using a laptop is no longer a status symbol of the executive or the sale team, nor is being away from the main office isolating and limiting. However, there are some speed-bumps on the highway to the work-from-anywhere ideal.
What you should know before going mobile
- Understand what applications and data are required to do your job. If it’s just internet access and email, you’ve got everything you need on just about any laptop, tablet or even smartphone. If you use industry specific applications that require access to data stored on your office server, can that app be run when you aren’t connected to the office network? Probably not, in which case you are going to need a VPN connection or remote access to your work PC.
- Plan your access to the internet carefully. Using your home internet connection is typically fine for most business users, but be very wary of posting up in a local coffee shop expecting to sip lattes and use their free WiFi without a means to secure your data transmissions such as using a VPN. What will you do if wherever you end up doesn’t have working WiFi? Most modern smartphones can provide a hotspot that should work for light internet work, but make sure you know how to use it before relying on it.
- Wireless internet is unreliable and possibly not secure. If you have a moderately sized home and the consumer-grade router installed by your ISP, you know of what I speak. If you have business-critical work that needs to be done, just know that WiFi can and will make you crazy with an unreliable connection, and doubly so for a smartphone hotspot, so plan accordingly. And don’t get me started on free WiFi provided by your local retail/restaurant/laundromat/etc. That WiFi should be consider as being provided for entertainment purposes only, and never used for business unless you have a proper VPN connection protecting you.
- Do you need to print? There are printers that are built for travel, but they are finicky and prone to fail at the least opportune time. Before any extended jaunt out of the office, make sure the printer is properly provisioned (ink and paper) and charged or equipped with its power cord. You might want to print something out just to be safe.
- Mind your ergonomics. Just because the local coffee shop is comfortable for lounging does not make it ideal for working. A couple hours sitting on a hard wooden stool hunched over your laptop will wreck the healthiest person’s back and neck. And typing away on a smaller keyboard will definitely strain your wrists and shoulders, while the small screen wreaks havoc with your eyes. The most productive and healthy remote workers will know what positions and heights are ideal for working with a laptop, and will equip themselves with things like laptop stands, cordless mice (and keyboards!) and choose environments that allow them to sit properly and comfortably.
- Are you going to be making a lot of phone calls? Those of us that spend most of our work day on the phone usually use a headset. Make sure the one you are planning to use can hold a good charge if it’s wireless, and has a better-than-average mic, as oftentimes you will be in noisy environments. You may be able to hear your caller just fine, but they may have trouble hearing you. Also keep in mind that if you are planning to use your phone as a hot spot, you may not be able to make phone calls at the same time.
- Is your device secure? It may seem like overkill, but consider using a cable lock on your laptop, especially if you are working in a public space and there’s any chance you may have to take your eyes off the device for more than a minute. If you store any sort of confidential company data on your laptop, including email, the hard drive should be encrypted and your laptop protected by a strong login password. Never leave your laptop or laptop bag visible in a parked car, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Despite the advent of wifi technology which has made staying connected a much more elegant, wire-free affair, we are still tethered by the ever-present power cord. Just about everyone who has traveled with electronics has cursed the forgotten power cord, and probably thrice cursed the tangled knot of cords they did remember to bring. Induction charging has attempted to answer this nagging first-world issue, but adoption of the technology has been slow, and it hasn’t conquered the primary complaint: your devices are tethered not with physical wires this time, but by the need for contact with the induction surface.
Enter surprise start-up Ossia and their product, Cota. Making their debut at the TechCrunch Disrupt13 conference, Ossia founder and physicist Hatem Zeine has developed a technology dubbed “Cota” that can safely power devices wirelessly, at a distance and through walls. The technology is still in the prototype phase and is slowly making its way through the FCC approval process, but Zeine was able to provide a live, on-stage demonstration of an unmodified iPhone being charged wirelessly from the prototype at a distance of several feet. The company’s initial foray into production is aimed at industrial applications where wireless power delivery is a top priority, such as powering remote sensors in a refinery, where electrical sparks are a constant worry. Ossia aims to to have a consumer product by 2015, which is envisioned to consist of a charging station approximately the size of a desktop tower PC, and will be partnered with a variety of receiving platforms such as built-in electronics, battery replacements and add-on receivers for legacy devices.
What this means for you:
We’ve a bit of a wait until the Cota arrives for consumers, but given the world’s aggressive adoption of mobile electronics and fondness for wireless aesthetics, it’s likely that even if Ossia fails, other companies will rise to the challenge. According to Zeine, the technology is as safe as current Wifi technology probably permeating your house and office right now, as it works in the same frequency spectrum. Whether or not you believe that platform to have any health implications is probably moot if you live or work in any urban first-world environment, as you are “soaking in it” as we speak. Assuming the health question is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, Zeine is predicting a complete paradigm shift in how we look at mobile technology, envisioning a world without batteries and the concept of “charging” made obsolete by an omnipresent power source. Are you ready to ditch the power cords? It may be coming sooner than you think!
Security researchers at Skycure have discovered another weakness in smartphone security, and this could impact you despite whatever security measures you’ve taken personally. Most smartphone operating systems, iOS and Android included, offer the ability to “remember” the SSID’s and passwords of Wifi networks you have accessed with your smartphone, and have the ability to automatically connect to that network the next time you are in range. Skycure has alleged that at least one major carrier, if not all of them, are also pre-programming certain SSID’s into phones straight from the factory, ostensibly to provide customers with a convenient connection with carrier-hosted or sponsored Wifi hotspots. For example, AT&T iPhones allegedly are shipping with the “attwifi” SSID preprogrammed into the phone, and will supposedly automatically join that wifi network, presumably in use by AT&T’s retail storefronts, if it comes across it.
Here’s why this is bad: hackers could spoof any SSID that you’ve set your smartphone to remember and autoconnect, and they’ve got a straight shot at your phone. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, as this requires guessing what SSIDs are stored on your phone, and then getting close enough to that phone with the spoofed Wifi network. But with the above, it would be trivial to sit in a crowded mall or any high-traffic walkway, scanning for AT&T iPhones, knowing that some, if not all, will autoconnect to a fake “attwifi” SSID without the owner ever being aware that they just got hacked.
What this means for you:
This exploit seems to be fairly new, and though Skycure claims to have seen this happening in the wild, it’s not widespread, yet. The best course of action is to disable the “autoconnect” setting for any wifi network you have used with your mobile device, whether it be smartphone, tablet or laptop. It will mean a few seconds of inconvenience anytime you are out and about and trying to get internet access, but it may mean the difference between keeping your cellphone secure or getting it hacked.
UPDATE: By default, Android phones will store SSIDs and passwords for any wifi network you add to your phone, and will automatically connect to that network whenever it is range. There is NO way to disable the autoconnect functionality built into the native Android settings. However, you can use an app to control automatic connections. I am currently testing this app, which is “free” but ad-supported. I’ve not tested it long enough to give a recommendation, but it does allow you to toggle the autoconnect functionality on or off per hotspot. On iOS devices, the only way to natively disable the “auto-join” feature is to actually connect to one of the pre-defined hotspots, eg. visit a local AT&T store, and then turn “Auto-join” off for that particular network.
Since its release last month, Apple has been fielding numerous complaints about wifi issues on the new iPhone 5. It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to sit tight during the first wave of complaints to see if there is any merit to them, or if they are just a combination of user-error and settling-in that always appears in new product launches. New customers were complaining of poor performance during the initial weeks of the iPhone 5’s arrival, and now that the first month’s bills are rolling in, these same customers have uncovered what looks to be a serious bug on the Verizon version of the the iPhone 5: instead of using an existing wifi connection to deliver data to the phone, iOS 6 (the operating system powering the iPhone 5) will instead continue to use the cellular connection, chewing up the monthly data allotment at an alarming rate.
Apple admitted the existence of the bug through a software update released on September 30, and Verizon has stated that no one will be charged for “unwarranted data usage” that might have occurred from this bug.
What this means for you:
If you’ve recently purchased an iPhone 5 or have upgraded your older iPhone 4 to iOS 6, and Verizon is your carrier, keep a close eye on your data usage and look for any unusual spikes in your monthly usage average. Reports are mixed as to whether this problem affects any other model other than the iPhone 5. Watch for the alert to patch your phone, and accept the update as soon as you see it. To check your cellular data usage on your iPhone: Settings->General->Usage->Cellular Usage.