By David Berlind

In a recent column about the top seven priorities for business technologists, I urged IT departments to stop buying desktop computers and to start buying laptops. Several readers concurred. Others asked, “Why?”

Here’s why
Back when many users were moving from single- to multitasking systems, the bottleneck to productivity was the system. The hardware couldn’t keep up with the demands of the software, and many of us were caught in the middle, staring at an hourglass while we waited for our systems to catch up. Naturally, no one wanted hourglasses, so we sought out systems that broke the least amount of sweat when asked to do anything marginally complicated.

For telecommuters or road warriors, finding a laptop that delivered performance comparable to the faster desktops meant spending two to three times as much. Decent laptop systems were budget breakers.

Today, however, even the cheapest laptop computers outstrip the performance needs of the most demanding business users. (I’m not including the handful of CPU-intensive applications that most of your users don’t run, anyway.) The fact is, you no longer have to settle for a desktop because the laptop is too expensive.

Case in point: Me. By any standard, my 266-MHz PII IBM ThinkPad with 128 MB of RAM is a dinosaur. The cheapest laptop computer you can buy today will run circles around my system before my system even gets its laces tied. Yet, as demanding a business user as I am (it’s not uncommon to see my system with 15 to 20 windows open), I’m never twiddling my fingers while my system sorts out what it’s going to do next. In fact, about the only major bottleneck these days is the Internet (which I find myself waiting for all too often).

Once you’ve eliminated performance and cost problems, you should start thinking about the advantages of laptops over desktops. What some consider personal computers’ biggest benefit—increased productivity—can best be improved by switching from a desktop to a laptop computer. The switch may require some retraining of your users to make sure they’re getting the most out of their laptops. Consider this: Very few users do all of their work at their desk. If computers make users more productive at their desks, why can’t computers make them more productive when they’re working away from their desks? For 10 years now, I’ve personally eschewed desktop computers in favor of laptops.

Meetings, for example, are an ideal situation for laptops. Admittedly, when I ditched desktops for good a decade ago, taking my laptop computer to a meeting wasn’t as simple as getting up and going to the meeting. Back then, laptops didn’t handle sudden events like disconnecting from the local area network very well. To bring my laptop computer to a meeting, I had to shut it down, disconnect all the wires, and restart it. Today, however, I just close the lid on my computer (which temporarily suspends it), undock it from my docking station (a must-have in the business environment), go to my meeting, and reopen the lid.

Outlook is the weakest link
Unfortunately, companies using Outlook and Exchange Server will find that Outlook is the weakest link in the chain of events just described. Inexcusably, Outlook is poor at handling the loss of its connection to an Exchange server. And users aware of this problem cannot easily switch Outlook between its online mode (where an Exchange server is always present) and offline mode (where no e-mail server needs to be present). Switching between modes, even in Outlook 2002, still requires that you not only shut down Outlook (which may require closing several windows) but that you shut down any application with a connection to the Exchange Server via Microsoft’s messaging API (MAPI) protocol. I have two such applications: ActiveSync, which keeps my system and my iPAQ synchronized with each other, and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry Desktop Manager, which does the same with the RIM BlackBerry that I’m currently testing.

As a side note, the e-mail and calendaring client for Lotus’ Domino ServerLotus Notes—handles this much more gracefully, providing a way to switch between the online and offline modes without having to shut down Notes. In either case (Outlook or Notes), the problem is eliminated if your office is outfitted with a wireless network, since the e-mail clients will maintain their connections to the servers.

The productivity issue
Even for companies on Outlook and Exchange, the Outlook problem is a minor nuisance when you consider the gained productivity once your users start bringing their laptops to meetings. For starters, meeting notes can now be taken on the computer. This is far more efficient than taking the notes on paper and then later transcribing them into the computer. If I end up responsible for any of a meeting’s action items, they’re entered into my task list before I leave the meeting. If I need to send e-mails as a result of the meeting, the messages are written before the meeting is even finished. Those e-mails will either be transmitted immediately (if I have a wireless network) or transmitted as soon as my e-mail client regains its connection to the e-mail server. In either case, I have much less work to do when I return to my desk.

I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t occasionally need to work at home. Here in the northeastern United States, I can count on doubling my daily commute time from two to four hours on days that it snows. Do I spend four hours in the car, or do I spend that time working at home? Even worse, what if I can’t get my car on the road because I’m snowed in. Cool. Snow day! But last time I checked, snow days weren’t very good for the bottom line. Even when the weather is cooperating, there are plenty other reasons your users will occasionally need to work at home: plumber visits, sick kids, car repairs, school closings, etc.

Many employees would like the flexibility of not having to burn a vacation day for these unpredictable events. With laptop computers, your users can work at home and save vacation days by connecting to the office network inexpensively via a virtual private network (VPN).

Disasters are another scenario where laptops come in handy. Think back to Hurricane Andrew and how many South Florida businesses had to set up temporary offices in alternate locations. Imagine how much easier that would have been if all the employees had their computers with them. The amount of retained data alone would be worth it, not to mention the effort saved because your IT department doesn’t have to resurrect an entire IT infrastructure from scratch.

Whether laptop computers could have shortened the recovery period for companies whose offices were destroyed on Sept. 11 is a different question. For those employees who hadn’t yet arrived at work, perhaps some time would have been saved if they had laptops. But for those who attempted an escape, asking them to take along their laptop computers would have been absurd. Nevertheless, there were companies whose offices weren’t destroyed but who had to vacate their premises temporarily because buildings were damaged. As with the hurricane scenario, companies that deployed laptop computers instead of desktops were probably better prepared for that sort of carpetbagging.

Got a spare?
Most of today’s laptop computers are so modular (display and keyboard excepted) that they’re at least as easy to service on-site as desktops. Smart companies standardize on one line of laptops, keep spare “shells” (laptops without drives, batteries, or memory) on hand for systems that fail, and keep plenty of those other parts, as well as spare PC cards.

Some vendors even make these parts interchangeable between desktops and laptops now, which is a great option to investigate if you’re considering transitioning to a laptop-only strategy. Particularly noteworthy are Compaq’s MultiPort and MultiBay technologies that facilitate such interchangeability between the company’s desktops and laptops. (See “Compaq and Intel say desktop isn’t dead”.)

The drawbacks
No decision comes without its drawbacks. For thieves, laptops are much easier targets than desktops. You’ll need to take additional measures to make sure your systems don’t walk away. Today’s laptops are easy enough to chain to the desk, but that doesn’t keep their parts from getting ripped off. The good news is that laptops easily fit in places that are more secure—like desk drawers. When out of the office, laptop users need to be as protective of your computing assets as they are of their own wallets and purses. This can be a challenge.

Another problem with laptops is their displays. Every laptop I’ve owned (all IBM ThinkPads) has had a display failure. Considering the mileage I’ve put on them, it’s not surprising. When companies have no spare shells available, a laptop with a dead display is pretty much useless. Depending on how long it takes to rectify the situation, you could be looking at the equivalent of a few computer-less snow days when it comes to productivity.

This is why keeping a certain number of spare shells handy is extremely important. In my case, IBM has been astonishingly fast at turning around my crippled laptops. I’ve almost always had them back within three days (even when a weekend was included). Thus, I highly recommend splurging for extended warranties when buying laptops.

One last downside is more like a slippery slope into the abyss. Once you start bringing your laptop home, you’ll find yourself taking more of your personal time to do work. When a company decides to equip all of its users with laptops, it is essentially promoting such an invasion of personal time. Not even a company policy that discourages the practice will help. In the name of getting ahead, competitive people will accept this invasion more willingly, and, no matter how small the movement, all changes in company culture start small and grow from there. Your company’s stockholders may appreciate the change, but spouses and kids might not, and it could eventually lead to unhappy workers.

And what of PDAs?
I see personal computers becoming increasingly irrelevant as people begin to look more seriously at handheld “terminals” (what the digerati now call network-enabled PDAs, mobile phones, and the like). I’ve already heard of executives ditching their computers completely for things like Palm devices, Pocket PCs, SmartPhones, and, more recently, RIM BlackBerries.

After using my BlackBerry for about a month now, I can see why. The device, bulletproof thus far, has dramatically increased my productivity. I manage about half my e-mail with it, and a lot of what I do with the computer is e-mail. As these devices (and the networks they connect to) get smarter, faster, more reliable, and more robust, I expect them to replace personal computers for some people—including me (I hope). Some of you forward thinkers out there should be considering today how to transition to that world. Doing so could put you way ahead of the competition in the near future.

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