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Series: Off the Beaten Track
Gideon Greenspan's PowerBook and shareware business go backpacking in southeast Asia
Article 1 of 2 in series
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 jobsShow full article
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.
Article 2 of 2 in series
As I write this, I'm sitting on a flight from Bangkok to Frankfurt, making my way back to London after spending two months travelling through Asia with my company, Sig Software, operating out of my PowerBook G3Show full article
As I write this, I'm sitting on a flight from Bangkok to Frankfurt, making my way back to London after spending two months travelling through Asia with my company, Sig Software, operating out of my PowerBook G3. (See "Working Off the Beaten Track" in TidBITS-508 for the tale of my preparations). I had a wonderful trip - for anyone unsure of their next destination, I heartily recommend the route from Singapore through Malaysia to Thailand. Futuristic cities, tropical islands, tons of culture, lush jungles, world-class diving, great food, rock-bottom prices, and more temples than you can wave a stick of incense at. And if you're not yet tied to spouse or family, I also suggest setting off on your own - you are guaranteed to meet tons of interesting people (both travellers and locals) without even trying.
Surviving & Thriving -- For those of you in suspense, you'll also be glad to hear that both Sig Software and my PowerBook G3 made it through two months and 3,000 miles overland largely unscathed. Save for a few scratches, the computer worked flawlessly and is as good as new. And every single day, without exception, I was able to answer customers' questions, download and analyze my Web logs, send off license codes and visit my usual smattering of Mac and other news sites.
Apart from the day-to-day running of Sig Software, I also managed to create four minor software updates (Email Merge 1.8, Analog Helper 1.1.1, NameCleaner 2.0.1, Cross Platform 1.1.1) and one major upgrade of Drop Drawers, which alone took a month's worth of spare time to complete. Thanks to the efforts of Cletus Waldman, ResExcellence even held a contest and published an interview with yours truly to coincide with the release of Drop Drawers 1.1.
Internet Cafes Abound -- In the first article, I mentioned that my preference was to connect to the Internet via the Ethernet network in an Internet cafe rather than dialing up myself. My assumption was that an Internet cafe would have a faster link to the Internet than could be achieved using an analog telephone line. In Singapore, the facts bore this out - most Internet cafes had an ISDN connection and for about $3.50 per hour I was able to surf the Internet at that speed.
The situation in Malaysia and Thailand was rather different. Without exception, Internet cafes in these countries used a single analog dialup connection (usually 56 Kbps, sometimes 33.6 Kbps) for an entire network of 10 or 20 PCs. So they weren't any faster than dialing up myself and had the potential to be an order of magnitude slower.
Fortunately, most Internet cafes doubled as network gaming centres and were filled with kids more interested in shooting each other than surfing the Web. The few locals or travellers using the Internet were usually glued to an IRC session or accessing email from Hotmail accounts. All this meant that I was often able to steal around 80 percent of the dialup bandwidth for myself. Nonetheless, there were occasions when I had to work with an intolerably slow connection - the record was set by one cafe in Lopburi, Thailand, where I could sustain no more than 20 bytes/second to the U.S. - it took 45 minutes just to check my email!
Prices varied in direct proportion to the number of travellers around. In non-tourist areas, access in both Malaysia and Thailand was charged at around $0.50 per hour. But anywhere near traveller guesthouses, you could expect to pay at least $1.25 per hour. In central Bangkok, some places were charging as much as $7.50 per hour, but more reasonable places were often just around the corner. In isolated tourist areas such as the tropical island of Pulau Tioman off the east coast of Malaysia, costs also rose to about $5 per hour.
Finding Internet cafes was far easier than I had imagined. The Internet Cafe Guide I downloaded and turned into a database proved to be a complete waste of time - to find an Internet cafe, all I ever had to do was walk into a shopping area and search around. Perhaps one in twenty Internet cafes had registered with the Guide - the one time I used it to find a Bangkok Internet cafe listed as providing free access for laptops, I was disappointed to learn that they'd cancelled the offer and didn't even allow laptops to use their connection.
One skill I learnt was persuasion. Most Internet cafes were staffed by people who knew little about networking protocols - when I showed them my laptop, they usually gave me a look of ignorance mixed with fear, shaking their heads and muttering "Cannot do." The way to get around this was to walk in with the laptop inside my bag and begin by asking: "Can I plug in my laptop?" Invariably they would not understand my Queen's English and so simply nod their heads, thinking I was asking whether I could use the Internet. Then I would take a look at the network settings on a PC (right-click on Network Neighborhood, choose Properties) to check whether I could plug in, and only then take out the PowerBook. By the time they realised what I was doing, I was already connected to their Ethernet network and configuring TCP/IP. Generally feeling uncertain about it, they would watch curiously as I completed the setup, while I pointed out what I was doing and said, "Is OK - I do many places - same same," indicating that it makes no difference to the network whether it's my computer or theirs at a particular IP address.
Most of the time, these places were running TCP/IP using fixed addresses, so I simply had to copy the IP address of the computer I was borrowing the connection from, along with the subnet mask, router address and DNS addresses. Some cafes were running DHCP, which made things even easier, since Apple's TCP/IP software has solid DHCP support. But about one in five cafes were running curious configurations, where the IP address and subnet mask were specified, but the router and DNS servers were not. I still don't know how they worked, but I suspect they used some mixture of TCP/IP and Windows networking protocols. In any event, as soon as I saw those settings, I knew the cafe was a lost cause and it was time to search out the next one, leaving them with a brief explanation. "Sorry - no can use."
The simple design and multi-configuration support of the TCP/IP control panel was a great help throughout - I collected around 30 configurations and was able to switch back and forth between them easily. Although its functions have now been rolled into Anarchie, Stairways Software's Mac TCP Watcher also proved to be indispensable, allowing me to watch the bytes going in and out and check what level of packet loss I was experiencing. Although it often locked up my system when the network was disconnected, Command-Option Escape was always enough to get it to let go. I also experimented with Sustainable Softworks' OT Advanced Tuner but found it difficult to tell whether it was making a difference.
Dial Up Access -- Compared to access in Internet cafes, my experiences in using the Gric global roaming dialup service were generally less positive. I'm guessing that this was usually due to technical problems at the host ISP in the countries I was travelling, although it was often hard to tell. All the access numbers provided in the Gric dialer existed; however, I often found that I was unable to log in at the specified number using my roaming login and password.
For Singapore, there were only two access numbers listed, but since Singapore is a city-state, that still meant I had local telephone access anywhere in the country. Although one of the numbers failed to recognise my login, the other worked fine.
In Malaysia, there were a few numbers listed, but the one I often used belonged to Telekom Malaysia, the national telecommunications carrier. They provide a special number (1515) for Internet access, charged at local (or near-local) telephone rates no matter where in the country the call is coming from. This worked correctly with my login almost all the time, although there were a couple of days when it failed. So, Malaysia gets good marks for dial-up access.
My experience in Thailand, however, was very disappointing. You may remember in my first article that one of the main reasons I chose the Gric global roaming network over iPass was that it offered local POPs in over 50 Thai towns. Unfortunately, almost all of these belonged to CS Internet (Thailand's biggest ISP) and none actually allowed me to dial in. CS technical support cited "temporary technical problems" which prevented non-CS users from dialing in. I forwarded their reply to Gric, who said they would check it out and remove CS Internet from their phonebook. So I ended up sticking purely to Internet cafes while in Thailand. CS Internet goes to the bottom of the Internet-roaming class.
The Gric software itself was OK, although its 25-second launching delay was a little frustrating. Furthermore, if I wanted to interrupt the dialing process or try a different number, there was no way to do so without force-quitting the program (which would then leave the modem port connection open, causing subsequent problems). Instead, I had to wait a minute or two until the Gric dialer had been told by the Remote Access control panel that the connection had failed. Despite these annoyances, it proved stable and dealt very well with all necessary dialing prefixes and codes.
Accessing the Internet: Best & Worst -- The best Internet access I had was down the road from the Wat Umong monastery, near Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. I wanted to spend a week in meditation retreat at a Buddhist monastery, but couldn't do one of the usual courses since they expect you to go totally incommunicado for at least 10 days. Although I can understand that seeking liberation from the eternal cycle of suffering through "vipanassa" insight meditation practice doesn't mix too well with running a shareware business, I doubt my customers would take too kindly to my gaining enlightenment at the expense of their technical support. But then I found Wat Umong - a quiet monastery with beautiful forested grounds, an English language library, a small open zoo, a beautiful lake, and some English-speaking monks whom I got to know. I'm not mentioning Wat Umong to revel in their hospitality, but because there were four Internet cafes within 10 minutes' walk, each of which offered access at under $0.40 per hour. As you can imagine, at that price, even the monks could afford to use them!
The worst experience I had was in the Kuala Tahan village inside the Taman Negara jungle in central Malaysia. There was one Internet-enabled computer, but the unfriendly owner completely refused to let me dial up myself and refused to answer my request for explanation. So then I persuaded a shopkeeper to let me pay him to use his phone line for around $0.10 per minute, which was expensive but not obscenely so. However, about a minute into my call the next day, he decided to hike the rate up by a factor of five and my protests were met by him unceremoniously unplugging the phone line. It seems he saw an opportunity to screw a tourist for a lot of money and was upset when he didn't succeed. In the end, I had to go across the river to the hotel-style resort and pay a rather hefty $0.30 per minute to dial up. For those few days, I restricted my Internet access just to checking and sending email, so I was usually done within three or four minutes. I guess I was wrong to think I'd find reasonably priced Internet access inside the oldest rainforest in the world.
The International State of the Mac -- While I was traveling, it was interesting to take a look at how Apple and the Macintosh were faring in three reasonably economically important South East Asian countries. I am glad to say that Apple has a fairly visible presence in computer shopping centres and areas. Many desktop publishing shops seemed to have Mac hardware and I even saw one iMac set up in an Internet cafe in Bangkok! However, in more out-of-the-way places, there seemed to be less of a Mac presence. One restaurant owner in Chiang Mai told me how he'd found it impossible to get reasonably priced technical support for his PowerBook 540 so he had to go out and buy a PC. I offered to help, but by then it was too late.
One thing is for sure - the release of the iMac and the iBook have revived the Macintosh as a desirable platform. Whenever I got talking to Internet cafe owners, they were asking me about new models which they had obviously heard about. Furthermore, they all seemed to know what a "G3" was and were impressed when I told them that my PowerBook had one inside - and they often remarked at the speed at which Web pages downloaded and displayed.
Affecting My Travels -- Amidst all the above, you might forget that the purpose of my trip was to see some of the world, not connect to the Internet every day. So how was my trip affected? If you've ever been backpacking, you'll know the usual variables: fatigue, hunger, time since last shower, drinking water remaining, cash remaining, how badly you need the toilet, general health status, distance from hostel, and, most importantly, days of clean underwear remaining. To this I added: charge remaining in PowerBook batteries, time since email last checked, and number of email messages awaiting reply.
This might sound as if I had no time for enjoying myself, but nothing could be further from the truth. The normal running of Sig Software only takes about half an hour per day since I have the standard processes automated (thanks to AppleScript - certainly one of Apple's secret weapons). But if I had extra time, I could do some programming - in fact, it was a boon having something productive to do on long bus journeys where there were no other travellers for company.
As I had feared, the PowerBook's weight was sometimes a burden. After checking into a new hostel, I usually felt comfortable hiding the computer under my mattress, tying it to the bed with a security cable. But some places just didn't feel secure enough, so I carried the PowerBook with me all day in my smaller backpack, resulting in some rather sore shoulders. The sooner Apple reintroduces a subnotebook, the better - in the meantime, living with a PowerBook G3 can be done at the expense of some physical comfort.
The best decision I made in preparation turned out to be using a padded FedEx box instead of a normal notebook carrying case. Apart from the size savings, the main advantage was that I was able to pull out and drop the PowerBook into the box inside my bag with the minimum of hassle. When the bus came to my stop, I was able to jump off even though I'd be working just a moment before. All the other bits and pieces proved useful too, with the exception of the Ethernet crossover cable. Although I doubt the security cable was actually tested by a thief (I probably wouldn't know if it had), it gave me peace of mind when out and about.
Battery life was sufficient for every single journey I made except the 12-hour outbound flight from Frankfurt to Singapore. With a lithium-ion battery installed in both slots, life averaged around eight hours - not bad, considering I'd never enabled the Reduced Processor Speed setting. (I was frustrated using a 333 MHz computer at around one-quarter speed). The Processor Cycling setting (which I did leave enabled) meant that the processor speed was automatically reduced when the PowerBook was waiting for a user event such as typing.
One side benefit of travelling with my PowerBook was that I could listen to my favourite music, which I'd encoded on the hard disk in MP3 format before I left. Many a long journey was eased by soothing tones through earphones. Even better, by using the auto wakeup feature in conjunction with MP3 playback, my PowerBook could serve as a musical alarm clock, which proved essential for catching early morning connections. If you want to do the same, remember to leave your PowerBook hatch open and switch off Password Security, or it will refuse to wake up at the specified time (I learnt that lesson the hard way!). And did you know it makes a great bedside light too?
Being part of the backpacker community, yet also travelling with $3,000 worth of computing equipment, made for an unusual mix. Other travellers were often surprised when I pulled out a laptop on a bus journey, but once I explained what I was doing, they seemed to take it in stride. Since I spent about half the time hooked up with one or another traveller, I was able to set Outlook Express 5 up to let them access their Hotmail email accounts offline. However, Outlook Express's support of Hotmail worked intermittently at best, so I sometimes had to send their messages from my own account.
One of the most amusing incidents of my trip had to be waking up in the grotty dorm of the Eastern Heritage Hostel in Melaka, southern Malaysia, and spotting a guy in the room wearing a Macintosh t-shirt. His name was Chris Langford, and he manages the Macintosh network at the Oregon Health Sciences University. After engaging him in conversation, it turned out he had heard of some of my programs and had even purchased one a few years back! I searched through my email archives and even found some correspondence we had had way back in December 1996. If that doesn't prove that it's a small world, I don't know what does.
Full Circle -- Would I do it again? Without hesitation. Although travelling with Sig Software wasn't quite as good as travelling with no cares in the world, it was a darn sight better than sitting at home working full time. If your business is run primarily over the Internet, there's little to stop you going where I went and taking it with you. I think my next destination will be China, but it will have to wait until Internet access in the country improves. I'll report on that trip when and if it happens, but in the meantime, if you're interested in seeing some of the sights I took in while away, check out the page below.