Special Report on Office Automation: A movable feast of new technology: Steve Homer explains how to make the most of the mobile revolution on a limited budget

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The Independent Online
IF YOU are out and about, the pressure to carry on working can be depressing. Wouldn't it be nicer to read a Mills and Boon or an issue of What Satellite? on the train, rather than write a report on the weekly sales figures. Well perhaps, but getting work finished early can earn you more time at the weekend or the key to the executive washroom.

However, the mobile revolution seems to have passed by many people with limited budgets. This need not be so. The price of mobile communications and computing has plummeted in recent years and now may be the time to bite the bullet and invest in technology.

On the communications front the alternatives are bewildering. First, there is the conventional cellular phone. The two low-call tariffs from Cellnet and Vodafone are worth a look. If you do not plan to dial out (the caller pays for incoming calls) they can be a cost-effective way of staying in touch. But be warned: start making outgoing calls and you will find yourself seriously out of pocket. With calls often costing more than 50p plus VAT per minute, the bills mount quickly. Phones cost around pounds 200 to pounds 300 plus VAT and there is a monthly charge of pounds 15 plus VAT.

As an alternative to the cellular phone system, use a combination of a pager and either telephone boxes (in most big cities these provide effective 'on the hoof' communications) or a Rabbit phone. Pagers come in many types. Simple tone pagers (monthly rental around pounds 10-12) just beep so you know to call a specific number - such as the office, your answerphone or your Rabbit voice mailbox. Numeric pagers allow callers to send you their numbers.

Alphanumeric pagers allow callers to send you messages. They are useful tools for staying in touch and, at around pounds 30-35 per month, are good value.

Rabbit is a digital cordless phone system that allows you to make calls from within about 200 yards of a Rabbit base station (denoted by a Rabbit logo). While the phones only make outgoing calls (you cannot be rung) Hutchison, which owns the service, offers a voice mailbox and pager system to complement its Rabbit network. When a caller leaves you a message, the system automatically alerts you.

With calls about half the price of cellular rates, a monthly charge of pounds 6, a tiny Motorola phone costing just pounds 99 including VAT and a growing network of base stations, Rabbit is an interesting and realistic communications option. Calls cost the same to anywhere in Britain (20p plus VAT at peak rate) which makes Rabbit cheaper than phone boxes for long-distance calls but more expensive for local calls.

A final option should be available to readers in the South-east later this year. The Personal Communications Network system will offer facilities similar to cellular systems but at a lower price. However, no details have yet been released on pricing.

While communications is an essential part of the mobile office, the second important factor is the ability to get on with work. This means some sort of computer on which to write reports or calculate spreadsheets. Fully functional portable computers are still fairly expensive (around pounds 600 to pounds 1,000), but there are basic machines that will allow you to carry on working outside the office without burning a hole in your pocket. Amstrad and Samsung have reinvented the 'basic' portable. These machines allow you to do simple word processing, work on spreadsheets, keep a diary and address book. The Amstrad comes in two versions: the basic model for pounds 199 plus VAT, and an advanced version with a disk drive which allows data to be more easily exchanged with an office PC. Both models use ordinary alkaline batteries or a mains adaptor. The Samsung Magic Note, at pounds 299 plus VAT, also has word processing, spreadsheet, a mains adaptor et al but for portable use you have to buy an 'optional' rechargeable battery for pounds 39.99 plus VAT. These systems can be tricky to use but offer wonderful opportunities once the technology has been mastered.

It makes sense to take with us these valuable tools to increase productivity. Don't decide on exactly what you want in a hurry but do consider using technology to make yourself more efficient. It pays dividends.

(Photograph omitted)

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