Software drivers are another area of frustration for both users and support staff. On the road, laptop users can encounter a dizzying array of network connections, multimedia display ins/outs, and peripherals options -- not to mention the moldy five-year-old technology used in hotel "business centers."
That means IT managers need to equip their road machines with a comprehensive suite of drivers -- after, of course, defining what's "comprehensive" for which users -- and then keeping those drivers up to date.
As Applied Materials' Archibald says, "If it moves, you have to keep track of it, brand it, fix it and change it."
With drivers -- as with laptop computing in general -- there are always a lot of moving parts to keep track of.
When bad things happen to good laptops
At Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, laptops have been frozen solid (a liquid crystal display is a liquid, after all), recovered from the bottom of a creek bed (along with the car it was stolen from) and sliced in half when a train suddenly rolled back a few feet, right over the laptop balanced on the tracks.
At Atlas Air, tech support once took a call from a road warrior who was driving, computing and talking on the phone at the same time ... the call ended with a loud crash.
And our favorite, from an outraged Applied Materials user's actual e-mail:
"Were you aware that at my current salary of roughly US$90/hour, the requirement to log in/unlock my laptop computer more than five to eight times a day, including mistyping, takes up to 20 minutes per day, 2.9 hours per week (I work 7 days a week), 145 hours per year (I take 2 weeks off for vacation).
"So, in effect, the security requirements for my laptop are costing the company more than US$13,000 per year. When you multiply this for even 2,000 laptop users, your 'need for protection' is costing the company more than US$26,000,000 a year. Can't we just turn it off and save the company money?"
Kind of gives new meaning to the phrase, "You do the math," doesn't it?
To outsource or not
It's certainly been said that IT folks are a masochistic lot. And nowhere is that more true than when the subject of laptop support comes up.
In-house support of laptops is liable to cost a company more money by far than, say, support of servers, says Ron Silliman, an analyst at Gartner. His view: The most cost-effective way to support laptops is by contracting with third parties offering distributed on-site support.
A surprising number of IT folks we spoke with are unwilling to take that advice and aren't even considering outsourcing their support.
Stephen Laster, CIO of Harvard Business School, says his group has to support the campus, otherwise it risks becoming too distant from what's really going on. "The interchange between us and our users is important, and it defines our culture," he says.
To be fair, Silliman agrees that universities are one place where on-site support can be cost effective, mostly because of the almost free labor provided by the many work-study college students. And universities also tend to be smaller environments where it's easier to control laptop standards, he points out.