Once seen mainly as perks for senior executives, laptops are replacing desktop systems with increasing frequency. Most often, the reason is to produce productivity gains. The more time an employee has access to a PC, the more time he or she can work offsite. In some cases, a laptop is a necessity for specific employees—such as sales and company VPs—who spend a lot of time on the road.

Although potential productivity boosts make the business case for increasing laptop adoption, it isn’t a cheap decision, and some tech professionals believe that potential productivity isn’t always a good justification for wide deployment. The key to making sure laptops are deployed properly is developing a plan outlining user needs and requirements.

Luxury or necessity?
Jeff F. of Ontario, Canada, is one TechRepublic member who believes that laptops are more of a status symbol than a necessary tool.

“Laptop computers are two to three times more expensive than a similar desktop or tower system,” he wrote in a recent e-mail, noting that the costs of peripherals, such as docking stations, power adapters, and batteries need to be factored in as well.

One way that IT leaders can establish a policy to determine who truly requires a laptop is by creating an overview committee. Earl Roethke, a manager with the Energy Management and Information System Division of Siemens PT&D in Brooklyn Park, MN, serves on his division’s IT steering committee. The committee is reviewing a working policy in which employees receive laptops based on annual travel time. Those who travel at least 30 days are given a laptop, while those who travel less can check out a laptop from a pool of older models.

Controlling support costs
While a company policy can dictate who gets a laptop and help determine appropriate models and capabilities, keeping the machines in good working order is another deployment issue for IT. It’s no light burden, as laptops and notebooks suffer more wear and tear than desktops.

Good equipment planning can lessen the impact of inevitable failures, according to TechRepublic members. Standardizing on one line of laptops is one way to reduce downtime and repair costs. The practice lets IT keep spare “shells”—laptops without drives, batteries, or memory—on hand, as well as PC cards and other parts that can be swapped out for quick repairs. Members also recommended installing programs such as Symantec’s pcAnywhere, which can help IT diagnose and fix software problems when users are working from a remote site. In a current community discussion, several support techs suggested enlisting the aid of drive-imaging software as well to speed configuration of multiple laptops.

Some IT leaders recommend that the deployment policy include information about laptop repair and user requirements. While the majority of typical support problems are solved by internal IT, some issues resulting from improper storage or protection of the unit could be deemed the user’s responsibility. The policy should draw clear lines of delineation between what is considered the internal support team’s territory vs. what the user will be held liable for.

Another economical laptop deployment approach is to use models that aren’t loaded with unnecessary features. Yet that doesn’t mean cutting short the expected lifespan of the computer. According to industry research, large enterprises are planning to keep notebooks slightly longer than in recent years, and the systems may be required to support new technologies, such as wireless 802.11b down the road.

Outsmarting thieves
Due to their inherent mobility, laptops aren’t a very secure enterprise tool, which only adds to their overall expense. According to the CSI/FBI “2002 Computer Crime and Security Survey,” 64 percent of organizations polled reported some type of crime involving laptop computers, of which theft and viral infection were named the top two occurrences.

A low-cost way to reduce risk is by educating employees about how to properly safeguard laptops. A good place to start is by downloading TechRepublic’s PowerPoint presentation for laptop users, which your tech support staff can customize to train employees in using and securing their laptops.

Other security options range from low-tech cable locks to services like ComputracePlus, which traces stolen laptops. IT leaders can also buy insurance policies, as a recent TechRepublic article explains, and employ encryption software to protect sensitive company data.

Planning is key
There’s no argument that laptops are expensive to buy and maintain, but with proper planning, thorough investigation of user needs, and user education, IT leaders can reduce ownership costs and avoid costly repairs down the road.