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Working Off the Beaten Track

Most travellers seem to be either away for business or specifically away from business - rarely do you hear about people who travel for pleasure but still maintain their day jobs. Although it's not immediately obvious that one can maintain daily email contact and develop reliable software while living out of a backpack, I'm doing just that. Over the past few years, I've been lucky enough to create a successful Macintosh shareware business while studying at university, and between 18-Oct-99 and 08-Dec-99 I'm roaming the Far East with my company, Sig Software, literally strapped to my back. If you've heard of NameCleaner, Email Effects, or Drop Drawers, you'll know my work. (Potential or existing customers need not worry - a friend at home has been ready to pick up the pieces if anything goes wrong - but so far he hasn't been needed.)


On the Road Again -- Being a relative youngster at age 23, I enjoy travelling far outside my home town of London, England. When my travel bug recently began pressuring me to hit the road again, the first obvious question was: where to go? I live in Europe; I've been to the Middle East, the U.S. and to South America; so, my sights were set squarely on Asia. Thanks to the Lonely Planet Web site, I checked out dozens of potential locations and eventually settled on the Far East. While Australia and New Zealand looked tempting, I felt the culture there would be too similar to what I see around me every day.


Ideally, my trip would take me somewhere far off the beaten track, but I had to consider more than just my itchy feet. Wherever I went I needed good phone lines, plenty of Internet cafes, and reliable transport. So although China, India, and Vietnam looked enticing, I had to strike them off my list. I would have considered Indonesia, if not for the political instabilities it is currently experiencing, and Japan is a little too developed for my liking.

So I decided on a well-worn route, starting in Singapore and working my way up through Malaysia to Thailand. This path would have no shortage of Internet cafes, plenty of other travellers to meet, good communications, safe transport and, most importantly, a wide variety of things to do and see. I tried a few Internet flight agencies but none could beat the price of USIT so I booked with Lufthansa from London to Singapore and back from Bangkok to London for about $700. Actually, there were several cheaper flights, but they all stopped in countries who refused entry to anyone with Israel stamped in their passport. I have Israel stamped in mine 10 times, so I took the hint.


The Computer -- World travellers have found free, Web-based email accounts to be invaluable for connecting from any Internet cafe, but running my business using HotMail or another free account is not a viable option. First, my payment processing system requires HyperCard, FileMaker Pro, and Emailer, all linked together via AppleScript. There was no way I was going to replicate all that in a Java applet! Second, I would want to do some programming as I travelled and (gasp!) there might even be some bugs or incompatibilities which would require fixing. It was time to buy a laptop.


Unfortunately, if you are a Mac user, you don't have many options when it comes to portable computing. Luckily, the one option you do have is superb. I began by looking in the second-hand PowerBook market but everything seemed wildly overpriced compared to a new bronze-keyboard Apple PowerBook G3 Series. I read some specs, looked up some benchmarks at the Mac Speed Zone and settled for the lower end of the two existing models.


But let's be clear about what "lower" means: a PowerPC G3 at 333 MHz, 512K cache, 64 MB RAM, 4.5 GB hard disk, a luscious 14.1" screen at 1,024 by 768 resolution with 8 MB VRAM for 24-bit colour using an ATI Rage Pro graphics controller, 24x CD-ROM, built-in 10/100Base-T Ethernet, VGA output (mirrored or as a second monitor), S-Video output and a 56 Kbps modem. Mac and More had the cheapest price in the UK - before sales tax it cost me about $2,600.


Connecting to the Internet -- While abroad, there are two sensible ways of accessing the Internet - either by connecting to the Ethernet network of a laptop-friendly Internet cafe, or dialing up through any old phone line. While the former method is clearly preferable, I reckoned I'd be spending plenty of time connecting by phone.

I considered several options for telephone access. First, there are the three major global Internet service providers - AOL, CompuServe and IBM Global Services. I checked each one, looking up how many POPs (points of presence) they had in my destination countries and what they charged for roaming. It became clear that none would be able to provide reasonable service for a reasonable price, with access in Thailand seeming especially problematic.


Next, I thought about purchasing a dial-up account with an ISP local to the region and tried to discern who was offering what, at what price. But I couldn't read (let alone understand) the languages on the ISPs' Web sites, so I quickly gave up on that front. I also had no idea of how reliable regional providers might be.

A third option proved to be the best. I found out about two global ISP roaming alliances which allow their member ISPs to provide dial-up access throughout the world by using the POPs of other alliance members. I had heard of iPass previously, but Gric provided a wider range of points in the countries I required - it covered over 50 towns in Thailand alone.


It looked like prices would be fairly steep but then I stumbled across Atlas Internet, a British ISP willing to provide global roaming access for under $20 per month. I signed up with them the same day and downloaded the dialer software from Gric's Web site. It's quite slow, since it is written in Java and runs within Metrowerks' now-discontinued Java Virtual Machine. Nonetheless, I tested the roaming by dialing up through various countries from the UK and it works great.


Finding Internet cafes was a relative breeze. Apart from the few mentioned in the guide books, there is the well-known Internet Cafe Guide which lets you search by town or country. The main drawback, however, is that the search results are provided as unstructured text. After a couple hours of patient dragging and dropping, I put together a FileMaker Pro database containing all the information I needed.


Most entries gave no details on whether cafes allowed travellers to plug in their own laptops. My own product, Email Merge, came to the rescue and in a few minutes I was able to fire off over 70 seemingly individualized email messages asking for availability and pricing for connecting via Ethernet. I received about 20 replies, mostly positive.


Peripherals and Add-ons -- Mac and More suggested I should wait as long as possible before buying PowerBook add-ons since accessories since new products are always priced at a premium. But eventually it was time to acquire extra RAM, an internal Zip drive for backups, a spare battery, and a security cable.

Everything except the Zip drive was easy to find. 64 MB of RAM, a spare battery, and a Kensington security cable came to a total of just under $400. I doubt the security cable will stop a determined thief but at least it's some deterrent, and I have insurance. Thanks to the spare battery, I can now expect about nine hours of unplugged life (I've tested it) which is enough for all but the longest flights. Some of my RAM will be put aside for a RAM disk to save some extra power, allowing the hard disk to spin down more often.


The Zip drive was a completely different story. Only one place in the UK had one in stock and wanted almost $400 for the VST model. Thankfully, the helpful people at MacSupplies, who sold me the other peripherals, offer an HDI-30 to SCSI adapter for under $40 and were willing to throw in a Zip carrying case for free. So instead of buying an internal Zip drive, I'm taking my trusty Zip Plus with me. It's a little bigger, but it's fairly light and works fine.


The Zip drive, along with many other bits and pieces, would go in my free Zip carrying case, but what about the PowerBook? I looked at standard carrying cases and most seemed too bulky for my needs. Instead I fished out an old FedEx shipping box, lined the inside with bubblewrap and the PowerBook fit perfectly. Best of all, it disguises the computer, so it hopefully won't attract too much criminal attention.

I also bought an Ethernet crossover cable, an RJ-11 phone cable, a few different power plug adapters and a three-way power splitter cube (I may want to use my PowerBook, Zip drive and shaver all at the same time!) Steve Kropla's extremely helpful site for travellers provides information on phone and power plugs used in various countries; I double-checked the information with my Lonely Planet guides to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei.


Backup Plans -- I mentioned that a friend at home has been equipped to take over in the event that I lose contact with the outside world. He has a replica of my payment processing system and a document describing how everything works. If he doesn't get a "checking-in" email message from me for two days, he will start work and continue until he next hears from me. Synchronizing the sales databases will be a bit of a pain but can be done with a little inventiveness.

If something less dire happens, such as a system corruption, I need to be able to recover. To that end, I'm taking the PowerBook G3 system CD-ROM which came with the machine, the CodeWarrior Pro installation CD-ROMs, and a CD-R containing other applications I might need, along with a recent copy of all my documents. To save carrying any more, I've made MP3 copies of my favourite audio CDs onto my hard disk using Xing's Audio Catalyst.


Lastly, I looked up Apple's Asia site for a list of Apple dealers in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. I was pleasantly surprised to see a fairly long list, which means I can get hardware support if I need it and that Apple's worldwide operations are in better shape than I'd thought.


Summary -- After several weeks of intermittent preparation, I was as ready as I was going to be. I'd spent about $3,500 on new equipment - a significant sum, to be sure, but it's money I've earned through my shareware business and it would be ridiculous if that were to tie me down so early in life. In any event, the products won't be obsolete when I return - I could probably sell them for two-thirds of what I paid. But I doubt I'll do that - I'll go travelling again, and, considering the expense is tax-deductible, it's a worthwhile investment.

The main shortcoming of all this equipment is the combined weight: a hefty 6 kilograms (about 13.25 pounds). That's more than 50 percent extra weight - most of my other items are lightweight. I'll let you know in the next installment of this article how I got on - in the meantime, if anyone has any ideas for my next trip, feel free to drop me a line.


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