The well-wired commuter

As wireless communications become faster and more widely available, there's a strong temptation to acquire the latest technology so you can stay in touch with your business wherever you are.

Now, you can get e-mail and check your portfolio while you drive or ride to and from work - even while you're at lunch. I'd be the last person to suggest that anyone should do any of these things, but it's clear that lots of folks really do want to stay connected, wired or wireless.

Assuming you're one of those folks, just how tightly can you be tied to the world of electronic communications and portable electronic information?

Riding the Wire

Let's start with a commuter who takes public transportation to the office or is a rider in a car or van pool.

You're going to be sitting for anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more, and the urge to make that time productive can be overpowering. If you've got your laptop with you, you can attach a wireless modem and retrieve your e-mail, download files or work on spreadsheets.

But if that's not feasible - you're standing up, for example - then try one of the handy-dandy two-way pagers/e-mail appliances, like Waterloo, Ontario-based Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry. The newer model, the 957, has a screen the size of a Palm V and is pretty simple to use.

Or use one of the similar devices from Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola Inc., the TimePort pagers. Or you can get one of those new Wireless Application Protocol-enabled smart phones, such as the Smartphone from Kyocera Wireless Corp. in San Diego or the R380 from LM Ericsson Telephone Co. in Stockholm.

The principal drawback of smartphones is that they have small screens, though they're better than most competing products. You can use these phones for e-mail, but it takes extra effort and may be fairly expensive, so you really have to want it.

Of course, you've already got a cell phone - doesn't everyone? How about getting an on-ear headset so you don't have to hold up the phone? There's apparently little health risk due to radiation from keeping a cell phone close to your ear, and wearing a headset is a lot more comfortable than bending your elbow for the entire morning ride.

Wireless Bluetooth phones should be available soon - but that means you might have to buy a new phone.

And of course, you also have a personal digital assistant (PDA). It stores your appointments and address book and has a couple of games to play when you have to keep your fingers busy.

Double Duty

With Motorola's StarTac Organizer or the VisorPhone module that fits Mountain View, Calif.-based Handspring Inc.'s Visor PDA, you have the opportunity to carry just a single appliance (albeit one that's a bit bulkier than you might like) on your commute. It performs both of those functions and lets you call up a name from your contact list and dial it automatically.

You can also add a wireless modem to your PDA for e-mail and Web browsing. Here, it's hard to make a single recommendation.

The Palm V from Palm Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., integrates nicely with a modem from OmniSky Corp. in Palo Alto, Calif., making a small, sleek package. Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Jornada 545/548 and Compaq Computer Corp.'s iPaq Pocket PCs are more powerful, with color screens, but the modems that are currently available are bulky and awkward.

Bells, Whistles and Digital Video

But we're only beginning to scratch the surface of electronic devices that can make your commute more productive or entertaining. Don't forget your MP3 player, so you can program your own music listening.

Use one of the new CD players that can read MP3 files and you can store a month's worth of commuter music on a single CD. Wear a smart watch that automatically sets itself to the proper time and can store addresses, appointments and short messages. Keep a digital voice recorder handy for recording quick thoughts and fleeting ideas - or even just remembering where you parked the car.

If you've got a seriously long commute, think about carrying a portable DVD player, like the $600 PDV-20 from Long Beach, Calif.-based Pioneer North America Inc., the US$1,500 DVP-FX1 from Park Ridge, N.J.-based Sony Electronics Inc. or the $900 Panasonic DVD-L75 from Secaucus, N.J.-based Matsushita Electric Corporation of America.

And if you're going that far, you might want to investigate "eyeglasses" that give you a virtual image five feet wide, such as the $859 Eye-Trek FMD-150W goggles from Olympus America Inc. in Melville, N.Y.

Neither the players nor the glasses are cheap, but if you have to ask. ...

Where Am I?

If location is important, you may want to carry a portable Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, like Olathe, Kan.-based Garmin International's eMap. You'll always know where you are, as long as you can see some sky. You'll also know how fast you're traveling and your altitude. Think of the trivia bets you can win with this gadget!

You may have noticed that as we add more and more devices, your pockets are getting pretty full and looking pretty weird. Here are a couple of ideas on how to avoid looking like a total nerd.

First, consider the $80 e-Holster from Personal Electronics Concealment LLC in Norcross, Ga. This is an honest-to-goodness shoulder holster originally designed for a firearm. But it's been adapted to carry a cell phone, a PDA or other portable devices. It's remarkably comfortable, though I don't recommend wearing it without a covering jacket: You might make the people around you nervous.

Another option is to create a "utility belt" on which you can comfortably and conveniently carry all those clip-on or slide-on devices. Using a separate belt makes it simpler to dress and change clothes and gives you a lot of flexibility. Just ask any police officer.

While you're at it, if you're going to do the belt thing, I recommend you add one of those pliers-based pocket tools, like the Pocket Survival Tool made by Leatherman Tool Group Inc. in Portland, Ore. With all the other gizmos, you won't notice the added weight, and when you suddenly need a Phillips screwdriver or a pair of pliers, a Pocket Survival Tool can be a lifesaver - far more useful than a Swiss Army knife.

Back on Track

If you're an early-morning runner, you might want to consider a pair of running shoes with a built-in pedometer that verifies how far you've run and how many calories you've burned. And if you're running in the dark, get the shoes with the flashing lights in the midsole, so you don't become a traffic statistic.

If you drive to work, you can be even more connected. Of course, you can't use the DVD player and goggles, but you can have an in-car GPS system that talks to you, gives directions and, soon, will be able to advise you of traffic problems before you get to them.

The GPS units in Hondas use a DVD instead of a CD and thus fit the entire country onto a single disc.

Help Is on the Way

If you get into trouble, and your car is equipped with a GPS system that has a wireless help system, you can summon aid without ever leaving your car or even rolling down the window. The OnStar system from General Motors Corp.'s OnStar subsidiary offers that type of functionality.

I suspect that in a couple of years, we'll be able to read e-mail in a heads-up display on the car windshield, though that sounds like a recipe for disaster. But having text-to-speech software read your e-mail out loud is a reasonable alternative.

Productive Progress - Or Is It?

If you're tempted to try out a lot of these ideas, you'll find yourself remarkably in touch with your business and the world. And you may increase your personal productivity as well. During your morning commute, you may be able to get your day off to a running start, catch up on reading your morning reports, rearrange your schedule and even conduct significant business before you ever arrive at the office. After all, you're going to spend that commuting time one way or another.

If you can gain a step on your day, then you're clearly one up on those who don't. And if you use your commuting time productively, you may then be able to really leave the office behind once you get home in the evening.

But before you commit to constant contact, remember there's a price to pay for it.

It's all well and good to be the wholly wired commuter, but there's a lot to be said for using that "dead" time to ramp up to speed or decompress from the day's activities, to collect your thoughts and reflect on your decisions.

Even if you're driving instead of riding, that time in the morning and evening can often be extraordinarily valuable for centering your mind and emotions and for thinking through ideas that you just didn't have time for during the day.

My personal feeling is that there's more to gain from this kind of quiet downtime than from a frantic effort to keep on top of all the news, all the deals, all the data. So give yourself a break. Pull the plug, at least some of the time.

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