I have a habit o switching off my cellphone once in a while. And I don’t answer it if I don’t feel like talking to anyone. I’m then asked by some why I was not answering the phone or why my phone was switched off. Within just a few years this idea that a fellow human being is only a touch of a button away got so deep into people’s minds that when someone isn’t they get angry.

But with traditional cellphone you don’t know whether someone is present or not – Instant Messaging (you know, ICQ & others) changes that. The idea is that a small application sits there running on your computer and people see whether you are there or not, busy or free to talk etc. It’s terribly convenient, especially to keeping in loose touch with friends or coworkers without any costs or regard to distance. It is supposedly less intrusive than phones, since talking on an IM doesn’t require the same amount of concentration a phone call does. But IMs are a lot more distractive. If you have a fairly populated contact list (like I do) you can be easily having four or five ongoing parallel conversations within ten minutes of signing on.

These ideas start to merge, as do many others. There is Skype which basically is an instant messenger with voice conversation added. There are IMs for the PDAs so you can stay in touch with people while on the move without your bulky laptop. There is Skype for the Pocket PC PDAs. There are other similar services coming from the traditional VoIP world. There are Wi-Fi phones capable of using those. You can see where it all leads – no matter what device you happen to have and where you happen to be you can be present, visible and reachable to your tribe – smaller or larger social group of people you more or less know and deal with.

But, of course, for that to be possible the other side of presence has to be there – the Net has to be there for you wherever you are. And we’re getting very close to that too.

Key to the Net being everywhere is of course getting rid of wires without loosing too much speed and without a hefty price. I remember very well how, as an excited teenage radio amateur, I was using a home built modem attached to an amateur transceiver to transmit data using the packet radio. It was 1989, you had to be a geek capable of assembling it all on your own and the speed you’ve got was 1200 bits per second. And it didn’t give you the access to the Internet yet, mainly because of the regulative problems. Next step was dial-up Intenet through cellphone which became available to the people at large somewhere around 1995-1996. With GSM it was 9600 bits per second, quite usable – especially in the age before e-mail attachments and spam – but at first prohibitively expensive. And, since it was a dial-up connection, you were not able to make or receive voice calls and you did pay for time spent on line not the data transferred. It resulted in the model of use being: dial-up, download e-mail, send e-mail, disconnect. Not quite presence yet.

But then GPRS came in the late nineties, cheap for small amounts of data and with initial billing model of paying for traffic not time the session was open changed the way people used the mobile networking. I wrote “initial”, because now operators drift towards selling the transfer in packages or even for a flat fee covering a month worth of use. GPRS was in Europe truly revolutionary, especially in the little known field of telemetry. I think that wast part of various European services, not necessarily involving moving objects like cars or cargo containers, depend on commercial GSM/GPRS infrastructure. But the main point I want to make here is that wide coverage of GPRS in Europe, its relative low price and ease of use changed the way people look at Internet access. Now they expect it to be there for them when and where they need it.

Let’s now add two more components to the mix. First – laptops, which become more and more ubiquitous, which is an obvious trend that acts as an enabler for many services related to mobility and Internet as most users still choose their laptop as their prime mobile device for accessing the Net.

Second – Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi or WLAN is way, way faster than GPRS/GSM but works on much shorter distance. However, it doesn’t require SIM cards and is extremely cheap to run. Wi-Fi took the market by storm with sales of devices skyrocketing and Wi-Fi cards becoming quickly a de-facto standard equipment of laptops. The reasons behind it are more complex than it seems at first glance. However, whatever those are the so-called hotspots appeared everywhere and many of them are free to use, which is a true change. There are more of them in the US, possibly because the need was greater since GPRS/GSM was not as developed in the US as it is in Europe. And it is the US when the most important revolution did happen – cities started to build Wi-Fi networks covering whole of them. At first these were some small towns, but then large agglomerations like SF embarked on such projects. At some point telco companies sued city administrators for unfair competition. And, in one of the most important legal outcomes of recent years, telcos lost.

It means then, that within a few years the most modern cities would be covered with high speed wireless networks (built in Wi-Fi or newer technologies, like WiMAX) allowing free or very cheap Internet access to everyone with a suitable device. This fact, the ability to get to the Net anywhere in the city would then quickly become a standard part of a modern town infrastructure. Just like paved roads, streetlights, electricity, running water and sewage.

With GPRS or 3G (UMTS) outside of densely populated areas and, possibly, satellite access everywhere else the Net would become omnipresent. Of course, it would be more so in the cities, where the access would be cheap or altogether free. And it would mean, that our presence within the sight of our networked tribes would become as continuous as we will only wish.

The only problem then is to put it to good use and handle this psychologically, which may be harder than we suspect.

This is a working version of a larger article I write about the various technologies merging or combining together in the near future and the impact it would have on society and business. It’s likely therefore that I will modify this post with time. And surely others would follow.