Mobile office predicted to be next high-tech trend

August 15, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- As soon as Scott Gordon, owner of a suburban Chicago computer software and consulting company, climbs into his gray Nissan Pathfinder, he's at the office.

Tooling down the road, Mr. Gordon will flip open his portable computer, punch a few keys and, by the next stop light, a screen flashes up-to-the-minute shipping information that helps him plan which customers to see first.

He'll place calls on his cellular phone, and keep in touch with incoming calls via an alphanumeric pager that zips messages across a tiny screen.

During the day, the company president checks his electronic mail by means of a credit card-sized modem hooked up to his cellular phone. He'll print out documents. Fax a letter to a client. Reprogram a customer's broken pager. All from his car.

Indeed, going into the office each workday doesn't mean what it used to: For some professionals equipped with cutting-edge technology, the office is not behind a desk, but behind the wheel.

For business people, bringing the office with them is more efficient, it gets them face-to-face with clients, allows them to respond quickly to problems. Not to mention that lengthy commutes and inevitable traffic jams eat up precious time and money.

"If we couldn't be mobile, our business would be reduced by 50 percent," said Mr. Gordon, who began his company, SBBS Software and Consulting Inc., five years ago and now has eight employees.

The mobile office has the makings of the next trend in doing business -- an estimated 25 million people now work outside their office on a regular basis. Also, there is a potential market of 48 million workers who travel regularly, according to the Yankee Group, a Boston-based market research and consulting firm.

Business users and technology providers predict the mobile office is an idea that will explode in the near future. After all, market competition demands cost efficiency, and Americans love freedom and an open road.

Already, 4 million sales professionals spend at least 200 days a year on the road, and an additional 13 million work in jobs that require them to travel at least 20 percent of the time, according to the Yankee Group.

A recent survey by the consulting group showed that 37 percent of business people are interested in technology that helps them work away from the office.

And 59 percent of the 1,600 respondents want to be able to fax, print, type and access information from their car.

But Daniel J. Rosenbaum, editor of the monthly magazine Mobile Office, cautions that it's very difficult to estimate the number of mobile professionals cruising the high-tech highways.

Still, said Mr. Rosenbaum, "There's no question it's becoming more common by the day. The realities of business finance and people's desire to drive their own lives . . . are driving this."

And who is occupying the mobile office these days? "The road warrior who is on the road 50 to 60 percent of the time," says Greg Oslan of Ameritech Cellular Services.

Many users are "real estate people dialing up their multiple-listing service, trucking companies relaying shipments and routing information by computer and fax, any type of salesperson," said Andre Burke of Cellular One. "Or, it's the leading-edge, early-adopter person who wants to try neat, cool stuff."

Fred Culpepper knows about being on the road. The 50-year-old insurance agent logged 75,000 miles on his car from June to December last year.

Before he bought himself a cellular phone and computer with fax and printer, Mr. Culpepper did things the hard way.

The Blue Island, Ill., resident would haul four or five briefcases with him. He'd go on sales calls with "a large rate book the size of three Sears catalogs." And depending on how many companies he was working with, up to seven such books.

Now those volumes are on a slender computer disc that Mr. Culpepper slips into the laptop he uses during presentations in people's homes.

After a sale, Mr. Culpepper says, "I go back to my car, pull around the corner and do the odds and ends if I'm not going back to the office."

For example, if coverage for auto insurance is needed immediately, he can fax a customer's application into the office. "I don't like being confined. I like the fact that I'm mobile," Mr. Culpepper said.

But there is a downside to bringing the workplace with you, many users and experts agree. "Paul Saffo, [director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif.] the futurist, likes to say, 'The danger of computing anytime anywhere is that it becomes computing anytime anywhere,' " said Mr. Rosenbaum.

Indeed, Mr. Gordon, the computer company president, admits: "Trying to drive, talk to a client and pull up information on the computer at the same time gets a little hectic. But you get used to doing all this at the same time."

Still, police and safety experts encourage drivers to pull off the road when in an involved phone conversation or to use a computer. "We recommend that when one is driving, one pay attention to the road," said Paul Chylak, deputy director of the Northwestern University Traffic Institute.

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