My name is Mike and I’m a digital nomad. “Hi, Mike!”
A digital nomad is simply a person whose work is location-independent because of mobile technology and the Internet.
Location independence doesn’t mean travel. If you choose to work from home, but could travel if you wanted to, you’re still a digital nomad taking advantage of your ability to choose.
I’ve been a digital nomad for about a decade, and during that time I’ve lived abroad briefly while working.
Before I converted to all-Apple, all the time — and before Apple launched the App Store, the iPad and had Apple Stores all over the place — the experience of living abroad while working was hard, limited and isolating.
But since Apple became the “New Apple,’ and since I switched to Apple products — and also since a host of great online services came online — digital nomad living abroad has become easy, empowering and highly connected.
Old-And-Busted Digital Nomad Living
The first two extended trips I took abroad were in 2006 and 2008. The 2006 trip was something of an experiment. I travelled to Central America to ruin-hop from one Mayan site to another for about six weeks. My experiment was that I didn’t tell my editors that I was in a jungle, rather than in my home office. I wanted to see if they could tell that anything was different. They couldn’t. But I could.
The experience was very difficult. It was hard to do research, for example. I had to spend an enormous amount of time hunting for WiFi connections. And when I found them, they were slow. I could take pictures with my state-of-the-art BlackBerry Pearl, but the 1.3 megapixel camera took terrible pictures. I had a nice, full-size digital camera, but uploading, editing and sharing those pictures was time-consuming and cumbersome, compared with how it is today.
In 2008, I lived in and worked from Greece for about four months. At the time, Twitter existed, but it had hardly any users — most of my family, friends and even colleagues hadn’t heard of it. The general public wasn’t using Facebook yet, and Google+ didn’t exist. Skype existed, but it was sub-optimal.
I was blogging about my experience then, and the pictures and videos were by today’s standards horrible.
By comparison, here’s video I took while in Sparta, Greece, in 2012.
When you blog professionally, quality really matters.
Years ago, it was nerve-wracking for me to carry around my big Windows laptop. What if I dropped it? What if it was stolen? What if I had an unrecoverable error, or if Microsoft suddenly decided that my copy of Windows was unauthorized (which they did on more than half my installations of Windows in the last few years of being on that platform, even though I was using the factory-installed copy.)
To a lesser extent, I feared losing cables, connectors, chargers and that sort of thing.
Ordering and shipping would be time-consuming (a couple of weeks, typically) or impossible if I was on the move to an unknown address. Plus, shipping certain types of things (computers, for example) to certain destinations (Central America, for example) is almost guaranteed to end in tears. And buying locally often involves wildly inflated prices.
In general, living and working as a digital nomad just a few short years ago was difficult, slow, limited, low-rez, insecure and isolating.
The New Hotness Digital Nomad Living
I embarked on my current digital nomad experience in July. Since then, I’ve lived in Greece, Turkey and Kenya, where I’m now staying.
The experience of working and living as a digital nomad has been utterly transformed by Apple, as well as by a new industry of services that solve most of the problems encountered by someone living not at home and working not in an office.
I carry a MacBook Pro, iPad and two iPhones (a 4S and 5). I also carry a Nexus 7 tablet and Nexus phone.
The most immediate benefit is that while I sometimes work with my full MacBook Pro, a lot of work at tiny outdoor cafes wherever WiFi can be found are much better with an iPad or even using an iPhone with a Bluetooth keyboard. (Here’s what it looks like using an iPhone as a laptop on a dark public street, where a MacBook Pro would light you up like Liza Minnelli on Broadway and announce to gypsies far and wide: “Hey, look at me! I’ve got a $2,500 laptop right here!”)
The world of iPhone apps creates incredible flexibility for making digital nomad living better.
I have a pretty big and pretty expensive digital camera — a Canon EOS 7D. There are many circumstances where I really, really don’t want to bring that camera, either because it’s a conspicuous target for theft or because it’s too dusty, dirty, wet or liable to be dropped to bring along.
In medium-risk situations, I take pictures with my iPhone 5. In high-risk situations, I take pictures with my iPhone 4S. Either way, the pictures are going to be fantastic, even though my “camera” fits in a pocket, and I can walk around looking like I have nothing valuable to steal.
Because of the wonderful variety of iPhone cases available, I can choose cases that conceal the reality of what I’m carrying. The Apple brand is highly desirable to thieves in some parts of the world. I use a BookBook case, which makes people think I’m carrying a little book. I’m thinking of getting one for my iPad, too.
There are some circumstances where a traveling digital nomad can’t have real security. You often can’t really lock the door, or know who’s coming and going while you’re out and about, for example.
I recently started using an app on my old iPhone 4S, which I keep plugged in and running all the time, called Motion Detector Cam. If it detects motion through the camera, it uploads pictures to Facebook in rapid succession while the motion is taking place. A user-configurable setting lets those pictures be visible only to me, so they’re not shared with friends.
There are many such motion-detecting security apps available in the App Store, but I like this one because of the Facebook uploading. (Facebook has to be good for something, right?) Facebook is in this case just a cloud-storage site that puts my security pictures into a Timeline. If the phone is stolen, there’s no evidence in the email inbox that these pictures are being offloaded, as is the case with conventional apps.
If I’m at a restaurant, and someone is in my room looking for stuff to steal, I get an email notification in less than 30 seconds, and I can see the pictures being uploaded to Facebook through the iOS Facebook app. I can use Google Voice or Skype to call the hotel or place where I’m staying to inform them of the theft in progress. If I don’t get a notification, I can relax knowing that my stuff is safe.
Of course, you can do most of this stuff with Android hardware. But the app situation is harder going on Android. For example, my Google Nexus phone doesn’t support Google Voice — one of the most powerful and useful apps ever for a digital nomad. Because my Google Voice number is the one I’ve been giving people for a few years now, people just call me and I just call people, even without a local SIM card.
The vast majority of people I call professionally, or who call me, have no idea I’m in Kenya, rather than Silicon Valley.
The ruggedness of Apple products also helps. While in Greece, I picked up my wife’s backpack, not realizing that the sleeve where she stores her MacBook Pro was unzipped. The laptop dropped from about four feet high, and landed on its corner on hard cement. While I’m pretty sure the fall would have destroyed my old Sony Vaio laptop, the MacBook Pro’s unibody construction left it dented but still working fine.
I use cloud-based apps for backup, file storage and sharing and so on.
The combination of cloud-based backup and Apple-centric usage means that even if everything I own is stolen or dropped in the sea, I can head to the nearest major city, find an Apple Store and replace whatever I need to replace, then restore my files from the cloud and still make my afternoon deadline.
Social sites like Facebook help keep me in the loop with family and friends. Sites like Google+ help me promote my work, crowd-source my ideas and stay in touch with my editors and colleagues. Google+ Hangouts and Skype enable me to do media appearances — I was on Al Jazeera this week via Google+, for example. I appear on TWiT shows occaisionally, including MacBreak Weekly, using Skype.
I access all these services on iPhone, iPad and MacBook Pro, and the experience of doing so is fantastic.
As I said before, the reality of being a digital nomad has been transformed by a wide variety of companies, and is much better even for people not using Apple products.
However, using mostly Apple technology comes with a lot of little benefits — a better selection of apps, the existence of Apple Stores, more case options, high quality screens, microphones, cameras and other little touches.
When people talk about revolutions in technology, they tend to focus on the technology rather than the actual lifestyle changes that technology enables.
But for digital nomads, the revolution has been overwhelming and transformative. In the past few years, thanks to Apple and other companies, the digital nomad lifestyle has become easier, higher quality, more secure and more connected than ever before.