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ALTOM: Who says you can't move your office home again?

September 12, 2009

According to news sources, a lot of us are moving back home to regroup in these tough economic times. I know a lot of business folk are. Many micro-businesses stuck a toe into the office-rental waters, regretted it, and they’re retreating to home offices. Many others work for companies with offices, but are working from home rather than spend money on gas. It sounds nice, but there are some lessons to be learned from it.

I can attest to the pleasures of laboring in jogging shorts and a Bay City Rollers T-shirt. If nothing else, I love being able to make the coffee exactly the way I want it.

There are tradeoffs, however. I love the freedom. I don’t love the isolation. Fortunately, I live down the street from a number of places with WiFi, so I can readily get out of the house and still give every appearance of working. It’s not like having work buddies, but it’s better than talking to myself all the time.

I’ve also found that home infrastructures aren’t up to office building standards. High-speed Internet isn’t always running at the promised high speeds. I have my Internet router, the “gateway device” to the ’Net, on a shelf where I can see it, so if any of the little blinking lights go dead, I’ll know about it. This happens with far too much regularity. I’m on DSL, which operates across old copper phone lines. The phone lines in my neighborhood were likely strung personally by Alexander Graham Bell, and they interpret any drops of precipitation as an excuse to take off work.

Power outages are devastating. My laptop continues to light up and hum, but without my line-powered router to get me out to the Internet, I might as well go clean the toilet for all the good the laptop does me. I’m buying an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to take care of this problem. They’re compact but heavy devices with batteries inside them and power receptacles on the front. When line power dies, the batteries that make the UPS so heavy give you a few minutes to gracefully power down. Since most outages are only a few minutes long, anyway, it’s possible you may not even need to shut down.

There are also times when the Internet just seems to be mulish. I’ve learned to verify the Internet speeds for myself with any of a number of free speed-check sites, such as www.speedtest.net or www.auditmypc.com. I rarely reach the speeds my Internet service provider has promised me, but they’re usually good enough, and they confirm that my Internet connection is working. As usual, download speeds are higher than uploads.

But perhaps my biggest problem with working at home is the need for a laptop. Ironically, even though I work from home, I have to be prepared to leave home. I confess I’ve never wanted to work on a laptop. The keyboards are too cramped, the pointing devices too skittish. At least at home I have a “port replicator” for the laptop, which allows me to plug in a comfortable mouse and keyboard. But when I’m out, I’m just like everybody else, hunched over pecking at keys that feel like I’m poking bread dough. Theoretically, I could take a mouse and keyboard with me. Kinesis Corp., for example, has the ergonomic Freestyle keyboard, which comes apart in two pieces (www.kinesis-ergo.com). Café tables don’t have a lot of room for a roll-around mouse, wireless or otherwise, so I could also tote along a trackball (www.trackballworld.com). But if I’m going to do all that, I have to put them in a second bag, or leave something out of my first computer bag. The price for freedom starts looking a tad bit high.

There are other irritations to home work. Copies aren’t free anymore. Nobody else feeds the printer, either. I have three phones for various purposes. And I have to back up my own laptop. Laptops are notoriously unreliable. Miniaturization isn’t a good recipe for robustness. Yet, most users never seem to back up. I can’t afford not to. I even back up my bookmarks files from my browsers. Everything goes.

If nothing else, my laptop’s hard drive isn’t all that capacious. I’ve stuffed it with software, so there isn’t room for storing many of the big data files I routinely work with. Fortunately, there are small external hard drives available. Mine is sleek, thin, and hooks to the laptop with a single USB connector, which is good because I have only two of them on the laptop.

I won’t even go into detail about lighting, security or climate controls. Did you know it’s more expensive to run the air conditioning all day long? You’ll find out. Welcome home.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant.His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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