Any time, any place, anywhere

With his sub-notebook, digital mobile phone and PCMCIA card, Chris Gill can file copy from any destination. Well, that's the theory
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is getting towards midnight, US Eastern time. I've been up since 4am, UK time - early enough to get me and my family to Heathrow for our long-awaited trip to Florida. In other words, I've had no sleep for more than 24 hours. I really want to be asleep. As usual, I failed to get everything done before the trip, and left a piece of work to be done on the plane - this time, a 500-word article for a newsletter. But I never managed to knock it off on the plane, so I've had to do it in our apartment. With the wife and kids safely tucked up in bed, I've keyed the words on my Compaq Aero sub-notebook - about the smallest PC you can touch-type on. Now it's time to send them back to my office in the UK. Easy, I'm an old hand at this.

In Europe, I would just reach for my Nokia digital mobile phone. Slide a card into the PCMCIA slot on the Aero, plug the other end of the cable into the phone, fire up Odyssey for Windows comms software, and away we go. In the States, of course, they don't have the GSM digital networks that unite the rest of the civilised world - so the Nokia, too, is tucked up in bed, in the glove box of my car back at Heathrow.

Still, I have got the trusty phone adapter kit that I relied on before the Nokia took over, so I'll be able to plug in to the phone socket in the apartment. No such luck: no such socket - the phone is hard-wired into the wall. At this point the dedicated international notebook user is meant to make a connection using crocodile clips and sticky tape, but I've never done it and this doesn't seem an ideal time to start. No, I will trudge off to the front desk of our holiday complex, where they will surely be able to plug me in. The people on the front desk are helpful - but in the end can't help. They let me try various sockets, but they all seem to have more wires connected than is usual and I can't get a dial tone, whatever I try. I wearily take the only route left to me: I sit down with PC, paper and blunt pencil. I transcribe my 500 words off the screen, and hand them over to be faxed to my office. The job is finished, and so am I.

Happily, that was an isolated nightmare. I do a lot of writing on my travels as a skiing writer, and practically always get the results back in a machine-readable form. Hotels and tourist offices normally have a suitable socket somewhere. Even if the phones use some bizarre plug-and- socket system that was installed with the Japanese switchboard, the fax machine will usually be plugged into a standard socket. I have even found the occasional public phone box with a modem socket - the one in the PTT office at Geneva airport I find particularly useful.

But the GSM system is a breakthrough. I have found it better in practice than in theory, which is just as well. Digital networks can tell that you're sending faxes or data rather than speech, and some networks don't yet support fax and/or data calls. In theory. In practice, I've found that many theoretically useless networks actually work, most of the time at least. Italy's SIP network, for example, was supposed to be carrying voice and data calls only last December, when an autostrada near Milan was the scene of one of my most spectacular fax transmissions. I sent some copy from the passenger seat of my Audi at a speed of about 90mph to my office in the UK, and the result was clear enough to be put through our OCR system. (I haven't yet transmitted copy while riding in a cable- car, but I will, I will.)

If I am writing copy for immediate publication, I like to get a printout so that I can sound as if I know what I'm talking about when the client or editor phones with a query. But I don't carry a printer; I make regular use of another standard traveller's trick - to get my copy on paper, I fax it to the hotel I'm staying in, or to a friendly nearby tourist office. The ability to send faxes locally is often helpful, too. On one occasion last winter I showed up in a ski resort where the tourist office insisted on an official request on paper from Where to Ski before they would give me a lift pass. Would a fax do? Yes, of course. No problem. I went back to my car and sent them a fax myself.