By Joe Brancatelli
October 6, 2010 -- Many of us business travelers live our lives on the road, but a good number of us now work in the cloud. Rather than clog our laptop with expensive and resource-hogging software, we rely on tricks, techniques, and devices that are freely available thanks to "cloud computing."
I don't present the Web-based options below as anything like a definitive list of on-the-road-in-the-cloud solutions. And a few of them are as much about personal comfort as personal productivity. But they work for me, they are free for all, and they make my life on the road a lot less stressful.
A New Life for Old Software
Microsoft's latest version of the ubiquitous Office suite of software--Word, Excel, et al.--uses different file formats than earlier iterations. As you may have realized, you can't just add an "x" to .doc and .ppt file names created by the earlier versions and make them magically compatible with the latest Office releases. So do you buy new software and upgrade? Not me, because, frankly, I am perfectly happy with the ancient Word 97 on my laptop. So when I have to deal with a file created by a new version of Office software, I surf over to Zamzar.com to make things compatible. You upload a file, pick a new format—more than two dozen image and document extensions are supported—and Zamzar quickly returns a link to the converted file to your email address. No fuss, no muss, and no expense for new software.
Universal Translator 1.0
The day will come when we all have Star Trek-like universal translators that allow us to converse in Klingon or Korean. Until then, you can clog up your laptop with various language-translation programs or head to the cloud for Reverso. In my experience, it is the most accurate online translation service for short bursts of text. It handles English, French, German, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese and Hebrew with varying degrees of aplomb. There's also a nice dictionary function: It not only converts words, but uses them in phrases in the target language. Is Reverso.com perfect? Of course not. But it works well enough in a pinch. One warning, though. It translated "Beam me up, Scotty!" as "Mi radi su, Scott!" in Italian. That's gobbledygook no matter how good your Italianate imitation of Bill Shatner may be. Everyone's an Art Director
Once upon a time, only trained photographers snapped shots for business presentations and skilled art directors were employed to manipulate the images. But technology has made everyone with a mobile phone a photographer and everyone with a picture-editing software package an art director. Yet I find that playing with pictures is easier in the cloud. A website like FotoFlexer gives you all the tools you need to crop, resize, retouch, and add basic effects to any image. All you do is upload the graphic to the site, manipulate, then save the adjusted image to your hard drive. A site called BeFunky offers even more advanced options, including the ability to turn your photo into a drawing. (You can even choose to convert your shot into a pointillist "masterpiece.") These kinds of sites are a boon to small-business people working on tight budgets, of course, but be warned: Just because you have the tools to manipulate images doesn't mean you have the skill or the style to pull it off. YouTube to Your Music Player
As someone whose columns and articles are often pirated by websites that don't think I deserve to be paid, you can understand why I'm against the idea of people stealing the work of creative people. That said, I often run across music on YouTube that simply is not available for sale. Two recent (and rather divergent) examples: David Allyn's recording of Kern and Hammerstein's 1937 classic, "The Folks That Live on the Hill," and a live performance of Patti Smith singing "Because the Night" accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. So I went to VidToMP3, which allows you to convert YouTube videos into MP3s for your music player. All you do is enter the URL of the video and the site returns a downloadable audio track as an MP3. Ingenious—and the sound quality is quite acceptable. (By the way, do what I do: Keep a list of anything you've downloaded from the gray market, then buy legal copies when they finally become available. It's good for the soul.) Music From the Cloud
Speaking of music, I'm old-school: I'm not a fan of slowing down my laptop's hard drive with too many music files. Besides, the cloud is full of radio stations and music services that stream on the Web and fill my hotel room with sound. My favorite is Sky.fm. It offers more than three dozen streams, including a nice variety of jazz and global choices ranging from Reggae to J-pop. Hide in the Cloud
For a laundry list of legitimate reasons, there are times when it may be wise to hide your actual IP address and surf the Web anonymously. There are dozens of downloadable programs that will do the job, of course. But they all seem to deposit icky bits of code on your laptop that slow down your Web surfing even when you aren't using the software. So on those occasions when I need an IP proxy, I go to Proxy.org. All you do is enter the URL address you want to visit and then select a proxy from the list. I've personally had the best luck when I've chosen Surfmo.com.
PDFs in a non-Adobe Flash
PDF files cut through the babel of conflicting computer operating systems and gave us universal cross-platform documents. The problem? The software for creating PDFs has been costly and cumbersome. The solution: CutePDF Writer. A tiny freeware download, CutePDF is no more difficult to use than sending your document to a printer. The software creates a virtual printer called CutePDF Writer on your laptop. When you want to convert a document to a PDF, send it to CutePDF from the print queue and the software does all the work. I've found it especially effective for saving and converting webpages into compact documents you can use offline. CutePDF is a whiz at automatically saving the images and words and keeping webpage format intact. The Fine Print…
The State Department issued a travel alert for Europe on Sunday. The concern is that Mumbai-style attacks—gunmen targeting visitors at popular tourist and transportation sites—is a tactic that terrorists may now employ in major European cities. We've discussed the fears and realities of traveling in a time of terror frequently. You can find those columns here and here. And the first Seat 2b column of 2010 was devoted to the subject.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.