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Ambulatory Computing

Anything that allows the user to leave the desk interests me. I'm always frustrated by not having my complete electronic environment with me when I'm working away from my Mac. Innovations from Apple and others are slowly bringing the dream of completely ambulatory (and no, I don't mean using your portable on the way to the hospital) computing into focus.

In the realm of real products that you can actually go out and buy, Microcom has some deals on their remote computing software and hardware that might be worth checking out. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Carbon Copy allows you to control one Mac from another connected by a modem or network. You can also transfer files and run applications over the link, though you'll want a fast connection for applications. If you purchase a single user copy of Carbon Copy for the Mac or a MacModem (which includes Carbon Copy, a 9600 bips v.32 modem, QuickLink II, and a MacModem wake up cable for use with Mac II-class machines), you get another one free. If you want the Unlimited Users version of Carbon Copy you get it for half price. The single copy of Carbon Copy is $99, the MacModem is $1099, and the Unlimited Users version of Carbon Copy is (with the discount) $149, all of which are quite reasonable prices. In each case you get a 60 day money back guarantee, so if you're interested, give Microcom a call. If you're interested in comparing Carbon Copy 2.0 and Farallon's Timbuktu 4.0 (which also does color), remember that there is a functional demo version on America Online, AppleLink, and CompuServe, though keep in mind that it takes about an hour to download at 2400 bips. Still, Microcom's prices are hard to beat with this offer.

In the realm of "unannounced products," Apple has several cute items that will make remote computing much more interesting. Everyone has heard about Apple's portables that should show up sometime this fall, probably in the latter half of October. I've heard that users find the smallest one, which has a 16 MHz 68000, 20 MB hard disk, and a decent LCD screen for under $2000, extremely nice to work with. It's only about five and half pounds and mainly suffers from having no plug for an external monitor nor an internal floppy drive, although you can get an external floppy. If Apple was smart, they would come up with a little plastic adapter that would allow the external floppy to attach to the side of the portable, making it into a single unit. I wouldn't be surprised if sales of the Classic will suffer at the hands of this new portable anyway, and if the more powerful portables include floppy drives and video-out sockets, the high-end desktop Macs might dip in popularity in comparison. The final interesting feature of this portable is that somewhat like the Mac IItx, our April Fools machine, it can dock to another Mac via a SCSI cable and operate as a hard disk. I'd still like to see the ability to attach the portable to a desktop Mac via LocalTalk and use its processor for some distributed processing work, but that might be looking a bit too far into the hazy future.

I mention this portable partly because it sounds like a good machine and partly because of its role in another technology Apple has underway. Called 976, this technology allows a Mac to call another Mac via modem and operate as though the two were on the same AppleTalk network. Dial-up AppleTalk could seriously enhance the way many people work, especially when combined with a tiny portable like the one I just described. Imagine this situation. You are a consultant, or anyone who has to work away from your desk at times. You obviously can't lug your Mac around with you the entire time, but you can take a six pound portable and a modem (it can have an internal 2400 bips modem that can also send faxes, but that might not be fast enough for real work). All you have to do is make an alias of your hard drive (you are running System 7, aren't you?) and copy it onto your portable while at work. Then, from home or from your client's office or the field office or the trade show, you can just call your Mac at work (OK, so you have to leave it running - though I guess you could use Microcom's wake up cable if you had a Mac II-class machine at work) and double-click on your hard disk's alias. You enter your password (wouldn't want just anyone calling your Mac and asking it out on a date, now would you?), and poof, your hard disk is sitting there on your portable's desktop. All your files are there, all your applications are available, and you can even use printers and other network devices. Hey, I'd use it. Apparently it is usable at 2400 bips and quite nice at 9600 or 19200 bips. I don't know when it will be out, but my guess is either this fall or early next year - but that is a guess, there's nothing but assumption backing it up.

Speaking of assumption, the only thing that could snazz up this scenario further yet would be wireless networking. I haven't heard much more about that from Apple, but you have to figure that General Magic isn't sitting around playing SimEarth all day long. I have heard that Motorola has a new wireless networking scheme in the works, this time based on a paging network. It is one way since it can only receive messages (you have to use a normal modem to send stuff out), but it would be ideal for use with electronic mail. Motorola has only shown it working with HP's tiny 95LX palmtop, but it can work with any computer outfitted with a serial port. Eventually, Motorola hopes the system, called EMBARC (Electronic Mail Broadcast to A Roaming Computer) will support more sophisticated network activities like file updating such as that provided by Publish & Subscribe and Microsoft's Object Linking and Embedding (OLE).

In some cases, you might not need an entire computer with you when you're working. If you mainly need large quantities of static information at your fingertips, all you really need is something to pull the information from and something to display it. Two companies have come up with just such devices, Colby with their Pocket Info Pac and Reddy Information Systems with Red. Both systems use Reflection Technologies's Private Eye display device, but there the similarities end. The Pocket Info Pac is merely a RAM-based slide projector. You put a bunch of RAM in (1 MB is standard) and then you can fill up the RAM with numerous screens of data via a serial port. You can then flip through them using a number keypad much like a TV remote control. The standard version is available now for $899 and you can spend up to $2999, depending on how much memory you put in. 1 MB will hold about 150 images, depending, of course, on the type of data. The Pocket Info Pac runs about 6 hours on nicad batteries or 12 hours on AA alkaline batteries. In contrast, Red is more of a full-fledged computer, but one which is still designed to get information out rather than to put information in. It costs $2500, but includes a CD-ROM drive, a proprietary computer, a SmartCard drive (for updates and programs, perhaps?), a pointing device and the Private Eye. It will run about 3 hours on its nicad batteries. I don't have a sense of how popular these devices will become, but I suspect that they will suffer if the pen-based portables catch on, simply because people are happiest with a read/write computer. It also hurts that both Colby and Reddy are relatively small, unknown companies (no phone number for Reddy, sorry). If Apple or IBM came out with one of these beasts, they might catch on more quickly.

Microcom -- 800/688-1750
Motorola -- 407/364-2000
Colby -- 415/941-9090

Information from:
Microcom propaganda
Pythaeus

Related articles:
MacWEEK -- 25-Jun-91, Vol. 5, #24, pg. 1
PC WEEK -- 03-Jun-91, Vol 8, #22, pg. 41
Macworld -- Apr-91, pg. 95
BYTE -- Jun-91, pg. 28