Is digital nomad living going mainstream?

Who'd a thunk it? A fringe band of crazy working globe-trotters just might be onto something

Sell the house and the car. Put up all your possessions on eBay. Pack your bags and buy a one-way ticket to some exotic location. The plan? "Telecommute" from wherever you happen to be. Earn an American salary, but pay Third-World prices for food and shelter.

The digital nomad, location-independent lifestyle once seemed so impossible, exotic and unlikely that only a few people dared even attempt it. But now, a lot more people are doing it, and it seems like everyone else would like to. Could it be? Is the digital nomad lifestyle about to go "mainstream"?

I was asked to be interviewed last week by the producers of something called the Ideas Project, a Nokia-sponsored site that explores what the "big ideas" are for the future of communications. I could have talked about anything, but I chose to address what I think will be the single trend that will do the most to change how people work: The location-independent digital nomad trend.

I've been writing about the digital nomad trend for a couple of years, but I and a tiny handful of writers have been nearly alone in our prediction. Suddenly, however, it seems that everyone is taking about digital nomad living.

The Washington Post ran a story this week about a new category of digital nomad service where you can rent office space and office equipment, like printers, while traveling. The story highlighted companies like Affinity Lab in Washington, but also talked about how digital nomads mostly gather in coffee shops and other places where wireless access is available. The article tried to dig into the economics and psychology of the digital nomad location-independent trend, calling the lifestyle a "natural evolution in teleworking," and pointing out that people enjoy choosing their own co-workers (by working in public places).

In case you missed it, let me spell that out in another way. One of the biggest mainstream newspapers in the country now agrees with what only a tiny number of us have been predicting for years: The digital nomad trend is inevitable.

I've also noticed a dramatic uptick lately in the chatter about the digital nomad lifestyle on social networking sites, such as Twitter. Digital nomad bloggers are reporting increases in traffic to their sites. Why?

All roads lead to hitting the road

A perfect storm of micro-trends are colliding before our very eyes to facilitate the lifestyle of traveling while working, and working while traveling. These include the usual suspects, such as the declining price of electronics and bandwidth and of an increasingly globalized economy. But they also include trends that don't seem that obvious.

The biggest of these is that the technologies, products and services that digital nomads use to work while traveling are themselves becoming popular among everybody, even those who never travel. Just read the headlines on this news site. Google Voice. Online apps. Netbooks. Apple's tablet. Videoconferencing. E-book readers. Social networking for business. These are digital nomad-enabling trends, but everybody is participating in them. It will get to the point where the only difference between an ordinary white-collar worker and a digital nomad is an airplane ticket.

Products like Amazon.com's line of e-book reader, the Kindle, and the gaming system Zeebo (from Tectoy and Qualcomm), use a newish model for delivering mobile broadband. Under this model, the cell-phone carrier supplies cell-phone-style wireless data, and their customer is the content provider (Amazon.com or Zeebo, for example), not the end user. In both cases, most of the use of the connection is for buying things, so the device maker has an incentive to provide the otherwise free broadband. Users love it because they never see a wireless bill or worry about extra charges for data. And the carriers love it because they get additional revenue without any customer-acquisition costs or additional infrastructure buildouts.

As this model spreads, we'll see digital cameras, GPS devices, wristwatches and all kinds of other devices with baked-in mobile broadband. This will advance the digital nomad lifestyle because you'll have less need to go find a Wi-Fi hotspot or even a computer in order to upload, download and communicate from gadgets.

A recent article in Travel Management pointed out that in-flight Wi-Fi is "spotty but showing promise." Interestingly, they suggested that airlines might start cutting deals with businesses so that employees would essentially get "free Wi-Fi," but paid for in bulk with volume discounts by the companies.

Airlines are starting to test free, in-flight Wi-Fi. American Airlines announced this month that it is testing free Wi-Fi through Aug. 23 (use the promo code AAWiFi76194A1 on the flight, and you don't have to pay). AirTran Airways is also offering free Wi-Fi from Aug. 1 to Sept. 1 on shuttle flights between Boston and Washington, D.C.

This looks to me like the airlines are sliding down that slippery slope to simply offering free Wi-Fi in a year or two.

Offering free Wi-Fi will be found by the airlines to be cost-effective in the long run anyway. The reason is that with cell phones, including the iPhone, media players, including the iPod Touch, and a new generation of media tablets lead by the rumored Apple tablet, just about everyone who steps onboard an airplane will be carrying a Wi-Fi capable device. By offering free Wi-Fi, airlines can stop having to install and maintain entertainment services. They can place their own ads on the Wi-Fi network connection but let passengers simply entertain themselves using their own equipment.

The St. Petersburg Timesreports that there are about 500 commercial airplanes equipped with Wi-Fi, but that number will double by the end of the year.

Barnes & Noble Inc. this week announced that it would offer free Wi-Fi at its 800 stores.

We'll get to the point within a year or two that every restaurant, airport, airplane, bus, train and park bench can serve as a wirelessly connected office.

I'm convinced that the digital nomad lifestyle is becoming less exotic and more likely. In the near future, it will become even commonplace.

So what about you? Any plans to get on board? Let me know: mike@elgan.com

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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Mike Elgan

Computerworld (US)
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