Plugging into the world, if you have connections

April 26, 2000|By Howard Kleinberg

HOW CAN YOU have a Global Economy if no one has the same plugs?

As I prepare to embark on an overseas journey, I take count of all my traveling electronic devices -- (a) hoping they fit in my small suitcase and (b) wondering if they will work there, there and there.

This is no small concern.

I am amazed at how the world has come together in business and communication yet we are not compatible with our telephones, electric outlets and other gimmicks.

My cellular telephone is worthless overseas, although I am aware that some models can function abroad.

Mine can't, and I'm not buying another one just yet.

But to give you an example of how something can come to overwhelm and confuse you, take the case of my PalmVx.

Until three weeks ago, I did not have this object. My son-in-law showed me his little hand-held device that seemingly did everything but set the water to boil under the eggs. He could put megazits of information into it, keep addresses, memos, appointments, write columns on the minute keyboard, record expenses, even pull down e-mail.

So I bought one at $490. As they say, it was only the tip of the iceberg. The protective cover that comes with it isn't very impressive so I went out and bought a nice leather case for my new toy ($24.95).

Then there was the need to use it overseas. That's where the Travel Kit ($49.95) comes in. This package of several devices, including a transformer and several different electric plugs, will allow me to connect my new toy to foreign outlets and have it work.

But if I want to get e-mail, I'm going to need a modem ($169.95).

The modem is a nice, flat little item that clamps onto the back of the device. Like the PalmVx itself and the Travel Kit, the modem comes with a booklet of instructions on how to work it.

Now I've got it all, right? Wrong!

It turns out that not only are foreign electric sockets different than what we have in the states but the telephone hookups are as well. Enter telephone adapters. You may already know, but I didn't: No two telephone jacks are the same. Wherever you go, you need a different one. My journey will involve five countries: five different telephone jacks. (A package buy at $69.95 -- including yet another booklet of instructions).

Understand that what started out as a small, convenient device was getting much more cumbersome and expensive.

The sizes of the various telephone jacks vary from slight to the massive one to be used in France. It's the size of one of those bite-sized Snickers bars, small for Snickers lovers but huge for travelers.

Along with the jacks, the kit provided a rectal-thermometer-looking thing called the Modem Saver Adapter. Upon inspection, it turns out that you shove this device into the newly installed foreign telephone jack adapter and it will tell you whether or not the hookup will fry your modem!!!

That's right. You don't get to find this out until you are under the desk in your hotel room, stuffing little adapters into bizarre-looking other adapters that may or may not function with that handy-dandy hand-held device that was going to make everything super easy for you.

I would imagine frequent business travelers, spies and drug smugglers have all this sorted out and know how to deal with it. As a rookie, I am treading unfamiliar waters.

I am sitting with this bantam computer-type thing clipped to my hip, and with eight or nine other accessories, plus three books of instructions, and I still face the uncertainty of failure.

And yet everything I read is telling me everyone in the world seemingly is now hooked up with each other. At this point, I find this hard to accept. Maybe I'll feel better if the green light goes on in my Modem Saver Adapter.

But if it shows red ...

Howard Kleinberg, a former editor of the Miami News, is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is

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