Business Hardware

The Economy Calls for Digital Nomads

The stock market continues to slide, companies are going out of business and layoffs are on the rise. The economic downturn is bad for just about everybody. But digital nomads can weather the storm better than most. Here's why.

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Artwork: Chip Taylor
The trend toward the digital nomad lifestyle, which includes everything from using Starbucks as your office to "extreme telecommuting" -- working remotely while traveling or living abroad -- has clear benefits. But big cultural changes like this are always resisted, especially by the companies that should embrace mobile employees and by vendors that sell the goods and services that enable extreme mobility.

Economic downturns, painful as they are, have a tendency to force new priorities on everyone. The cost savings and efficiencies inherent in the digital nomad lifestyle can become irresistible during recessions, and so the trend in that direction is accelerating.

Here are six examples of how the downturn will help digital nomads.

1. More telecommuting. Companies are looking for ways to cut costs without hurting productivity. One way to do that is to cut salaries or bonuses, but mitigate those cuts with a new perk: telecommuting. And it's not just a perk. Working from home can save you a bundle in gas, dry cleaning, car maintenance, restaurant lunches and more. The company gets to lower costs, and you get a better lifestyle without being harmed financially. It's just more efficient.

2. Cheaper computing. The first big impact of the downturn on technology was a radical shift in buying patterns. The most recent analyst reports show that notebooks are outselling desktops for the first time in history, and netbooks are the runaway success story of the downturn so far. The hotness of the mobile computing market is driving economies of scale and cut-throat competition, resulting in laptops that cost as little as US$600 and netbooks dropping below $300.

3. The rise of e-books. Using an Amazon.com Kindle or some other electronic-book reader is great, except for one thing: Limited selection of books, newspapers and magazines. But the downturn is changing all that. Increasing numbers of print publications are shutting down in favor of electronic-only versions. The most recent example being the venerable PC Magazine, which announced this week a permanent move to Web publishing only. The book industry is much slower to react, but react they will. Huge numbers of titles will offer electronic formats in the next year or two. And this trend benefits digital nomads who can't carry a library of books around unless that library is electronic.

4. Cheaper bandwidth. Let's face it: Carrier data charges are a rip-off. We can tolerate being gouged for both voice and data during boom times. But as soon as the recession hits, everybody starts wondering why they're paying $60, $80, $100 per month or more for data. Soon enough, the carriers will start competing with each other for real, and whoever can supply reliable access for the lowest price will emerge from the downturn in better shape than the others.

5. Online meetings. Digital nomads love online meetings and hate being the one person on the speakerphone when everyone else is in a meeting room. As businesses seek ways to cut costs, the expenses of business travel are low-hanging fruit. When companies hold more online meetings, digital nomads working from home or abroad get placed on an equal footing with those in the office.

6. Extreme telecommuting. When your company changes its policy and allows you to telecommute, and when meetings are conducted online instead of in-person, you might be freed to live in another country for a few months, or even a year or two. The financial advantage of this can be enormous. You can take advantage of the digital nomad dream combination of a first-world income and third-world costs. Before extreme telecommuting, you could make a bigger salary in economic centers like New York City or Silicon Valley. But then you would have to pay through the nose for housing and other expenses. You may have read the stories about Silicon Valley millionaires who consider themselves middle class because of the high cost of living there. The extreme telecommuting sweet spot is when you earn a big-city salary, but live in, say, Bolivia, where a mansion with servants costs $500 per month.

Football legend Knute Rockne used to tell his players, "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." But that was then. Now, the slogan should be, "when the going gets tough, the smart get going" -- mobile, that is.

The economy will get a lot worse before it gets better. But get better it will. In the meantime, technology gives us more options than ever for surviving and even thriving during the pain.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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