The 'anywhere computing' era dawns

Don't look now, but the 'mobile computing' idea is suddenly obsolete. We hardly knew ye.

The new hotness

The good news is that these limitations -- hard, soft, real or imagined -- are all going away.

Like the previous shift from portable to mobile computing, the transformation is gradual and uneven, and caused by a combination of new products, services, attitudes and ideas.

Computing required you to go where the computer was. With portable and mobile computing, you took it with you. But in this new era of anywhere computing, the computer is already there. It's everywhere. It's in your laptop. It's in your pocket. It's in anyone else's computer. It's on remote mountaintops, islands and deserts. It's available from every corner of the globe -- no exceptions.

The elements of anywhere computing

Here are some of the many enablers of this radical shift:

Do-it-all mobile phones. Once rare, cell phones and smart phones that you can use as a laptop modem are now common. Phones with GPS; giant screens; peripheral, fold-out keyboards; PowerPoint support; and other advanced features are now numerous and affordable.

Satellite phones. Per-minute charges are high, but as a backup plan, satellite phones are invaluable for connecting from anywhere.

Ultramobile PCs. A new range of wireless UMPCs and similar super-small computers enable you to do real work in places you previously couldn't, such as on economy-class tray tables, restaurant table tops, you name it. They also serve as a low-cost, "second laptop" while on the road in case something happens to your main laptop.

Rugged devices. Indestructible, waterproof laptops, tablets and cell phones enable you to work outside, and help make sure your stuff is still available in harsh conditions.

Alternative energy. A new generation of compact solar chargers and even wind-up chargers means you never have to be sidelined by dead batteries.

Functional flash memory. "Thumbnail" flash memory drives are everywhere, and some enterprising companies are using this technology to offer low-cost, solid-state devices that back up, secure and even provide operating systems for your data.

Gadgets for storage. Most new pocket gadgets these days are available with tons of storage or support for removable media. That means your smart phone or iPod can serve as a ready backup drive for all the documents you're currently working on.

Online Office replacements. Services like Google Documents and many others provide not only zero-install replacements, but also provide backup, storage and the sharing of your word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation documents. Many let you save in standard Microsoft formats for mailing to colleagues. (I wrote this column during a business trip using both Google Documents online and Word for Windows on my laptop, writing bits in three airports, two airplanes, three Starbucks and one unfashionable hotel.)

Software that "mirrors" your mobile phone. Free services like Dashwire are emerging, which not only back up and "mirror" the contents of your cell phone online, they let you use all that stuff -- including chat, phone configuration and more -- on the Web. If you lose a phone, they can also help you restore to the replacement phone.

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