Remember the adverts in the early 1980s for the portable Osborne computer? The one that managed to pack a computer, screen, power supply and floppy drive into a suitcase-sized package? All I can remember is that the woman who held the computer in the adverts not only had the slightly strained look of someone smiling through a particularly boring cocktail party story, but she had the whitest knuckles I've ever seen. She's probably suing for stress-induced arthritis as we speak.
But these days you don't have to lug a suitcase around if you want computing power on the move. In the mid-1990s I spent three years travelling through all sorts of rough areas of the world, and everywhere I went I carried a palmtop computer that I used for everything from email to expenses. In the early noughties, I took an even more sophisticated system on a long trip through West Africa, as well as on a 1111-mile walk across Britain.
The last few years have seen an explosion of new portable and mobile technologies, and these days I simply take an 11-inch Macbook Air with me, which packs all the computing power I could possibly need into a tiny package that slips into my backpack. But if you want to know what us digital nomads did before the term was even invented, here's the low-down on what I used to take travelling in the good old days: the trusty palmtop.
Being a Digital Nomad in the Nineties
For my 1995-1998 trip, I wanted a portable computer that I could use for writing, faxing and sending messages to the tiny handful of people I knew with email addresses. Unbelievably, I managed to cobble together a system that managed all of this and more, all running off a handful of AA batteries.
An Acorn Pocket Book II: This palmtop was based on the Psion 3a but had some software changes to make it more suitable for the education environment. I preferred it because it had a thesaurus built into the word processor, which the Psion 3a didn't.
A Psion 3Fax modem: Not exactly one of life's fast modems, the 2400-baud 3Fax was laughably slow even back in 1995. Then again, for sending pure text it was bearable, and its slow speed ensured it was reasonably reliable over public phone lines.
A TeleFast acoustic coupler: This nifty little piece of kit from TeleAdapt enabled me to attach my modem to any telephone handset in the world (assuming that the humans in that country had ears and mouths in the same places that we do in the West, which turned out to be a pretty safe bet). I got some weird looks when hooking my computer up to public phones in the middle of the street, but nobody actually stopped me. Would you stop someone who looks like an international spy? Exactly.
An ISP: For my ISP I used CompuServe, which I could access via local (or at the worst, national) calls in almost every country on my route, so I could send and receive email fairly easily throughout the trip. The big problem was India, where CompuServe didn't have a node, but I simply learned to live without it (I could have called Kathmandu or Colombo if I had been desperate, but I wasn't).
Just for the record, I typed around half a million words on that tiny keyboard over three years; that's about the same as four or five reasonably sized novels. As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, but having tried both computers, I'd much rather use a proper keyboard than a Psion one. My thumbs are still aching...
Being a Digital Nomad in the Noughties
By the time I came to my trip through West Africa in 2002-2003, my trusty Acorn Pocket Book simply wasn't up to the job any more (though I've been using it as my alarm clock ever since – they really built them to last). I needed a more modern solution, and decided to go for a slightly different tack.
Back in 1995, when I set off on my first computer-assisted trip, nobody was emailing from the road, and internet cafés were pretty thin on the ground, so I had to take my own internet solution. By the start of the new millennium things were completely different, and you could find internet cafés everywhere; indeed, in poorer countries they were even more common than in rich ones, as they were (and, to some extent, still are) the only affordable way for locals to get online. With this in mind, I decided not to take a modem, but instead focussed on finding a decent portable computer that I could easily hook up to the PCs I'd find en route.
So, for my 2002-2003 trip and my 2003 walk across Britain, my computer kit consisted of the following:
A Palm m125: To be honest, there wasn't a lot to choose between Palm machines and those running Pocket PC, but I'd always used Palms, I knew how they worked, and I knew they'd do the job. I chose the Palm m125 because it was the only model that had the features I needed. I wanted a model that used normal AAA batteries rather than rechargeable ones (recharging on the road can be a pain, but you can buy AAA batteries everywhere), and I wanted to have some kind of backup system; the m125 took normal batteries and had a slot for SD cards, and it was the only Palm that had both. That made choosing a model decidedly easy.
A Palm fold-out keyboard: I was never going to manage much writing on a Palm without some kind of keyboard, and the Palm keyboard was a masterpiece of lightweight, quality design. I typed over 125,000 words on it in just under four months, I lugged it through dusty deserts and humid tropical jungle, and it behaved impeccably, just like the Palm itself.
A normal serial cable: Most Palms came with a USB cradle, but on the road in West Africa I found it was much better to have an older, RS-232 cable to hand; not only was it lighter because it didn't come with an unnecessary cradle, but it fitted older machines that didn't have USB ports, and off the beaten track in places like Mali and Burkina Faso, that was a serious bonus.
Software: For word processing, I used the fantastic WordSmith from Blue Nomad Software. This was effectively a cut-down version of Word that worked like a dream (it didn't crash once in all that typing) and I loved it. The other piece of software I took was a transfer program called SyncWizard, a very simple shareware program that fitted on one floppy disk, and was much easier to install and remove than the clunky Palm transfer software. It enabled me to copy files directly from my Palm to a Windows PC, so I'd simply copy my writing into the Memo Pad application on my Palm, and use SyncWizard to copy the MemoDB file onto the PC. It worked every single time in West Africa, which I think is seriously impressive.
Cases: To protect my investment, I bought tough cases for both the Palm and the keyboard. These also had the handy side-effect of making my computer look much cheaper, which was particularly useful in the developing world, where in some countries my kit was worth more than a year's salary for the locals.
With this set-up, I could easily write anywhere and copy my stuff to PCs in internet cafés. Sure, I needed to install software and plug cables into strange computers, but I do this kind of stuff for a living, so I rather enjoyed it. I even ended up ftp-ing my writing directly to my website, so friends and family could read it at their leisure, but that's a whole other story...
Don't Get Addicted!
Technology on the road is fantastic, when it works. My first machine died in the middle of Sulawesi, however, where Acorn stockists weren't exactly common (hey, they weren't exactly common anywhere.) This is what I wrote in my travelogue at the time:
It was then that my computer died from the same disease that had struck it down in New Zealand: a cracked screen cable. If I had known how long I'd have to wait for a replacement, despite the best efforts of Acorn, it would have sent me into a wave of panic; I've become so used to travelling with the convenience of dynamic budgeting, the ability to keep my travelogue going without having to worry about the constraints of pen and paper, and the ease of having all my information available in one place, that life without my little machine is considerably more difficult.
So I kept my travelogue as a series of memory-jogging notes in a pad, ready to sit down and type away as soon as I got to Yogyakarta, the place I thought I'd resurrect the poor, wee beastie. Sadly, it wasn't until Singapore that I became electronically sound again, so for this section of the travelogue I'm working from memories that are up to a month old. Hopefully it won't be too obvious, but I just know I'll have forgotten so many little details that would normally be rushed down into electronic form as soon as they occur to me. Technology is a great enabler, but take it away and the user is worse off than they would have been before; I simply can't write on paper any more, unless it's a short letter. The thought of ink and processed tree, of not being able to cut and paste, to change words millions of times, to check the spelling, to back up what I write, to email the result home... it scares the hell out of me!
The replacement almost died in Diu, but luckily I was able to fix it. The moral of the story is, don't get too dependent on your machine – always carry a pen and paper, just in case.