The first time I ever connected online from outside an office was in a small hotel in Bermuda. This happened around 1999, and it wasn't easy then. Few places had broadband--it was all dial-up. There wasn't even an extra phone jack: I had to pull the bed away from the wall and unplug the room phone, then perform a wide variety of numeric gyrations to make an international call to my company's U.S.-based Internet Service Provider. This was the Internet's Stone Age.
I was pretty handy with technology, so I could tackle problems like this, but many people couldn't. You needed a "middleman," someone at the office who explained how to do this. It could be an IT director (although he or she was usually busy making sure the servers didn't crash and the Web site stayed up) or just someone who knew more than everyone else at the firm. This was analogous to the pre-phone days when telegraph was the standard for quick communication--you needed someone who knew Morse Code.
As time went on, I noticed that hotels were at least installing extra phone jacks in rooms in easy-to-reach places, like the bases of desk lamps. That was good, although there was an economic problem with this: Before the advent of laptops, hotel guests made very few local or 800-number calls. You might call your voicemail system, a local restaurant or taxi service, and that was about it. Now, with people tying up local lines for hours, call plans had to change.
Ultimately, though, the guest was a winner, because getting online became simpler. Dial-up services adapted to road warriors by providing easy-to-understand remote connections and more numbers to call. It became more of a do-it-yourself enterprise. This was followed by broadband-on-the-go, as hotels installed high-speed connections and even provided cables. The price was often a flat-fee per day, often in the $10 range.
Broadband was even easier than dial-up: Phone connections could be tricky, and there was always the chance you'd end up dialing outside the local calling range and incur enormous phone charges. Still, you had that cable to hook up, and it went into the FAT slot in the laptop, not the SMALL slot for a phone cord, as I probably explained a hundred times to colleagues.
Now, however, I'm seeing wireless connections in hotels--such a simple solution that even the most technophobic user can get online remotely. Just click the blinking network icon on your computer, and you're ready to go. You probably don't even need to call the office expert--that middleman--to get you online, no matter how inexperienced you are. At the hotel where I stayed for the FPA conference, wireless access was even free. So we've gone from complicated, slow and expensive to simple, quick and free.
Of course, you still need the experts who set up the wireless network in the first place.
Or maybe not.
I have a home office with a desktop computer, where I sometimes work on magazine business, responding to emails. I share it with my wife, who uses the computer to plan lessons and answer emails from her students and their parents. My two daughters go online to research school reports (when I'm looking) or IM friends and visit fan fiction sites (when I'm not), so there was a constant fight over the computer. In the evenings, we turned from a close-knit family into a dysfunctional four-person office. We needed not only multiple workstations, but multiple broadband connections. The big question was, did we need an expert to solve this problem? Would it cost a fortune? No, and again, no.
We found a solution that should be applicable to any small office. And we didn't have to call in outside help. In fact, we only had to visit one Web site. We started by buying a couple of inexpensive laptops from Dell's Outlet site (www.dell.com). Dell lists refurbished or cosmetically damaged computers on this site at steep discounts and even offers a limited warranty.
Next, we bought a wireless router. These devices, about the size of a hardcover novel, turn the signals from a cable modem into wireless signals that our laptops can receive--just as they do in hotel rooms. Dell offered many different models and different prices; the one we finally picked cost under $100 and promised to hook up to three other computers to our desktop. It came with full instructions that--and this was key--assumed no computer knowledge beyond the ability to turn on the machines. The only "wiring" we had to do was plug the router into the modem. It actually worked. We now have three computers simultaneously online, and everyone is happy--even if our living room is beginning to resemble the mission control center at NASA.
The lesson for advisors in small firms is not so much what you can do by yourself--which is a lot--but that technology becomes more user-friendly over time. That is, in eight years I went from re-wiring Bermuda hotel rooms to a fully functioning "small business" in my home.
I'd like to think this is a big trend. If you have stories to share, we'd like to hear about them for special technology coverage we have planned for 2008. Please email me at the address below, and let's see if we can get an idea of how comfortable our readers are with technology.
Richard J. Koreto (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor-in-chief of Wealth Manager.