Page last updated at 11:47 GMT, Thursday, 1 October 2009 12:47 UK

Net nomads of the electronic age

Technology is making it easier for people to work from outside the office

Wherever I lay my laptop, that's my home, says Bill Thompson

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my life as a 'neo-nomad', one of the growing number of people who use digital technologies to allow them to work from anywhere, living with "no office, colleagues who are largely engaged with online, and often a number of overlapping projects to be juggled and managed at the same time".

It was a pattern of life that had emerged for me over years of being freelance, as I put more of my work on a laptop and found that I could generally rely on being connected to the internet when I needed to be, initially over dialup lines 'borrowed' from amenable friends, then via open wireless networks, and now through my 3G dongle.

I also benefited greatly from the workings of Moore's Law (which describes the trend that the number of transistors in a chip roughly doubles every two years), as the laptops I owned became more and more powerful, so that the machine I use today is faster and has a lot more memory than the four-year old desktop it replaced, while my mobile phone outstrips my old Vaio laptop on every scale except screen size.

And I started to make use of cloud-based services, with shared calendars, online documents, network-accessible disk space and webmail all slotting in neatly to the nomadic lifestyle. Moore's Law helped here too: every time I needed more space for my e-mail, Google would increase the standard allocation, and Apple offers MobileMe subscribers more space than the old .Mac used to.

I'm happy to pay for services that make my life easier, like MobileMe and the online storage service Dropbox, but equally happy to take advantage of free or advertiser-supported tools where they will do the job.


Having a background in computer science has made me cautious, however.

Although I use more Google services than those from any other company, I don't rely on them (or any other single provider) to keep me online or provide a core service.

My calendar sits on 30 Boxes and Google, but it's also stored locally on my laptop and in a red Moleskine diary that goes everywhere with me.

I have four main e-mail addresses, and I pay for three of them - Gmail is free - so that I can be sure of messages getting through. And every e-mail that comes to my laptop and desktop is also picked up by Gmail as backup.

Bill Thompson
I don't feel like I'm being ripped off for having access to my own data
Bill Thompson

And I haven't entirely embraced the cloud, as most of my data is stored on hard drives that I own and can carry around with me, but I'm certainly trying to make the network work for me, by giving me easy access to as much of my data as possible from wherever I am, whatever device I happen to be using.

Life as a nomad has been fun, but today I'm taking things a bit further for a month at least. I'm going to be between homes until early November, so this seems a good time to see just how much the combination of a laptop and an internet connection can deliver as I turn from being a nomadic worker to a true digital Bedouin, pitching my tent in different places.

Moving on

I left my lovely house in Sawston, just outside Cambridge, last night, having moved my entire world into a large storage unit. I've kept some clothes, my tax files (as I have to do my VAT return this weekend), my laptop and my phone with me, but that's about it. I'll be staying with my girlfriend some of the time, in hotels while on trips some of the time, and I'll be couch-surfing friends in Brighton, Tyneside and elsewhere, carrying as little stuff as possible.

A month isn't long enough to miss my books, paintings, and all the small objects that sit on my desk reminding me of who I am and how I am connected to those I love. But it could be long enough to discover which of the objects in my life really matter to me, and I suspect that some of the boxes in the storage unit will end up remaining sealed when I retrieve them.

And it will also be long enough to discover just how much I can rely on the technologies that surround me to support and sustain my non-work existence. It could be very interesting.

Of course, I do have some useful tools to help. As I write this I can see the files on my main desktop computer, a 24" iMac. I can even see its screen and run applications that are only installed there, and get full access to the various disks and devices plugged into it.

It works because the iMac is at the Cambridge Film Trust office, where I'm one of the Trustees, and the office manager has kindly let me put it on a spare desk and link it to the local wireless network. Using 'Back to My Mac', a tool built into Apple's Mac OS X, I can share the disk or screen over the network and connect from my laptop.

It's the same service you get from a variety of Windows tools, and it's great. Instead of having to lug the computer around, I can just talk to it over the internet, saving me a great deal of hassle copying files, installing applications, and keeping things in sync. It goes to sleep when I'm not using it, so I don't feel guilty about using electricity unnecessarily, and it doesn't take up much space in the Trust office.

This isn't cloud computing, and I'm not paying for data storage, computer time, bandwidth or anything other than the MobileMe subscription which does the authentication between the two computers (and which I was paying anyway for the other services), so I don't feel like I'm being ripped off for having access to my own data or for the hire of processor cycles in a data centre somewhere.

So now the great adventure starts. And if I stop answering e-mails, no longer tweet, and neglect my Facebook it will be safe to assume that some technology somewhere, has let me down. Or, perhaps, that I've discovered that the offline life is more fun.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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