Don't tell the boss I'm at the beach

Equipped with a mobile phone, a laptop, a modem and, of course, a Virtual Personal Assistant, Stephen Pritchard set up office away from it all
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
We all like to think we're indispensable at work. And given the economic climate, fears of being cut off from the workplace are understandable. But just how easy is it to keep in touch during a business trip or a holiday? For the self-employed or people working from home, it could be vital. Using the best technology, it should be possible to create the perfect mobile office. Customers, colleagues or the boss need never know that key workers are on the beach. At least, that's the theory.

I decided to put the mobile office to the test for a visit to Brussels. I needed to be able to send and receive three forms of message - voice, fax and data. The obvious solution seemed to be a digital mobile phone using the international GSM network. GSM is ideal for the traveller as it can make or receive calls across most of the world. And as the network is digital, it can carry data as well as voice. All that is needed is a lap-top computer with a PC card slot, a cellular data card (which feeds the computer's data into the phone line) and a compatible phone: the whole office in one briefcase.

I got hold of a Mac Powerbook 520C, which has a PC card slot. Then I hit a brick wall: I discovered that GSM data services are not available in Belgium. This required a rethink: I would have to assemble my three required elements one by one.

Phone calls were not a problem. The Belgian network does support voice GSM calls, so I took a Motorola phone from BT anyway. GSM is not cheap; you pay around 55p a minute excluding VAT to receive calls. But it is convenient.

The next step was to buy a standard modem for e-mail: this would allow my digital computer to talk to the analogue Belgian phone network. The best bet seemed to be a battery-powered unit, a Pace Microlin: no external transformer, no continental plug adaptor. United Europe does not extend to phone sockets, so I bought a BT-to-Belgian connector from TeleAdapt to link my modem to the local network.

This left faxes. Here I decided to get fancy, and installed a VPA back at base. The VPA (Virtual Personal Assistant) made by Andest can receive both phone and fax calls, and faxes can be played back to a connected computer.

You can dial the VPA from a remote fax machine and tell it to re-transmit the faxes. It can also page you to say there are messages waiting. The VPA has enough memory to store 50 pages of fax messages; if that is not enough, it can be upgraded.

The result? Not perfect, but it worked. The GSM phone functioned without a hitch, although surprisingly for a phone marketed at travellers, its charger was larger and heavier than the handset itself. The VPA had no problems taking calls, but the forwarding function stumped me. I initially told it to forward calls to a number in London, where I was staying en route. I tried to reprogramme it so that it would page my Belgian hotel's reception when a fax arrived (I did not want to put in my mobile's number because it could have rung at all sorts of inconvenient moments). But because my office telephone system needs a pause for an outside line, I could not generate the correct tone remotely. The receptionist remained undisturbed.

Instead I rang the VPA every evening and instructed it to retransmit faxes. At first I tried to do this with an elderly Belgian fax machine because it would have given me a print-out. That did not work, so I used the Pace fax modem instead. It worked without a hitch, though I had to read the faxes on the Mac's screen.

Setting up a full remote office in this way is expensive. The cost for the equipment, excluding the laptop computer, was little short of pounds 1,000. It is also an efficient way of shattering illusions of importance. I received three faxes in Belgium, for all my clever technology: two of them were junk mail, the third was a bill.