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The right blend

1985 was a year that had a dramatic effect on the way we now live our lives. It was the year mobile phones first appeared the UK with the launch of Racal Vodafone and Cellnet and Microsoft also launched the first version of its Windows operating system that November.

While mobile phones were for some years considered executive toys and Windows did not really take off until the launch of version 3 in 1990, both now dominate our working lives.

Today, mobile phones and computer software are rapidly converging to make the concept of computing where you want it, when you want it, a reality. This has dramatic implications for our industry as it will enable advisers to take their computers everywhere and help them become a core part of the advice process.

For the past few months I have been testing a service that aims to not only combine the two technologies but make them affordable to small business. Under what, as far as I am aware, is a unique initiative, Fujitsu Siemens has joined up with Vodafone to apply the same model to the sale of mobile computers that has been so successful in promoting the use of mobile phones.

We are all familiar with mobile phone deals by which the mobile phone company subsidises the cost of the hardware in the expectation of our future call traffic. Connect2Air takes the same approach to the delivery of laptops enabled with mobile data cards.

You pay an initial cost to the reseller, typically £150, and sign up to a two-year contract costing £90 to £110 a month. This includes the cost of the PC and data card, a choice of different packages for your data dep-ending on how much you expect to use, accidental damage and theft insurance, the latest version of Micro-soft office, next day onsite support and a stolen laptop tracker service.

All laptops are also ena-bled with Intel Centrino chips, enabling them to use wi-fi networks.

What this adds up to is a package that means you can maintain computer-based communications wherever you are if you are within a wi-fi hotspot.

Wi-fi, also known as the 802 standard, will use either a wi-fi card or increasingly a wi-fi capability built into your laptop to allow you to connect within short distance, usually about 10 metres, of a base station. Normally, public hotspot connections are paid for by the hour at around £5 an hour and they are increasingly available at airports, main railway stations, Star-bucks and Cafe Nero. There are around 3,000 public hotspots in the UK.

Another method of wireless connection is through GPRS cards, which can provide access to mobile internet services using the 2.5G mobile phone network. This can sometimes be a slow connection, if anything slightly slower than a dial-up modem. The leading-edge solution for mobile computing is the new 3G data networks. Coverage for 3G is still limited to the major cities, so it is not necessarily ideal for use all over the country.

To search for a local hotspot by postcode, the data card can be used to connect to www.totalhot-spots.com, after which users can make their way to the nearest hotspot.

My testing was carried out on a top-of-the-range Fujitsu Siemens Lifebook T3010. This machine can be used as a normal keyboard-based PC but by swivelling the screen 180 degrees, it can be folded flat and used as a windows tablet PC.

Tablet is a technology that could have a positive effect on our industry in the fut-ure. The level of handwriting recognition on the latest version of the tablet operating system is amazing. It really can read the most untidy scrawls. As someone with reasonable typing speeds I have to confess that I kept reverting to the keyboard but for those who do not type, with a little initial discipline tablet offers a potential solution for advisers that want to get away from using pen and paper.

I also had the benefit of a Vodafone 3G card which automatically changes to GPRS whenever the 3G network is not available without losing the connection.

Two weeks ago I was on the road almost all week, speaking at the Money Marketing Live/AdviserTech event in Manchester on the Tuesday, followed by a day in Altrincham with Bankhall before travelling to the Forest of Arden to speak at the SIFA/sIFAc conference on the Thursday, returning to London Friday morning. The Connect2Air PC provided internet access throughout.

To address the problem of slow 2.5G connections the Connect2Air package includes specialist acceleration technology from Tracline called AcceleNet (see www.tracline.co.uk). This took the speed from the level of world wide wait to a level that I found more than acceptable while travelling.

So is this the ultimate PC connectivity package and is it good value for money? It is certainly further forward than anything else I have used. The ideal solution would include a bundled allowance for hotspot use as well as the data card.

The deal does now offer all users a 3G card in place of the basic GPRS for a six-month extension on the contract and I am told that in the next two months a dedicated 3G bundle will be announced. Vodafone does not, at the moment, have the widest 3G network – that can be claimed by Orange, which has some highly competitive pricing for standalone data cards. The length of the agreement does not seem excessive even if you go for the six-month extension to take in 3G.

Allowing for the Microsoft Office licence, insurance and a data allowance, the costs do not seem excessive given that you are getting a high-quality laptop.

Personally I would probably go for the biggest possible data allowance as once you get used to the degree of freedom this set up can give, you are likely to want to take advantage of it all the time.

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