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, and 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, Ont.-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 L.M. 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.

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.

You can also add a wireless modem to your PDA for e-mail and Web browsing. The Palm V from Palm Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., integrates 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 colour 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 a commute more productive or entertaining. Don’t forget an 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.

And 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.

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 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. 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.

While you’re at it, if you’re going to do the belt thing, you can 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.

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.

In a couple of years we may 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.

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 aligning 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.