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Plan for the desktop-to-laptop migration wave

As laptops replace more PCs, companies must have a support program. This tip delves into various issues a company must consider when switching to laptops.

Kendall Whitehouse used to hate being tied to his office PC. If the end of the day came and found him with loose ends to tie up, he could either do the floppy disk shuffle to his computer at home or stay late.

Then he got a laptop, in addition to his desktop unit, and life eased a little. It was relatively simple to load the documents he needed onto his notebook and head home. Business travel was a slightly different matter, however. "It almost never failed that I'd be on a trip and fire up the laptop, only to discover that some application would be back home on the desktop machine," says Whitehouse, the director of advanced technology development at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. So, about a year ago, he decided to give his desktop machine the boot and establish his notebook as his one and only computing platform. "As laptops became more powerful and the price differential decreased, I was really attracted to having the world with me wherever I went," he says. "Everything is always there. It's really quite appealing."

The "anytime, anywhere" computing creed Whitehouse adheres to is a big driver behind a trend in computing circles nationwide: More and more knowledge workers are upgrading their workplace computer from desktop to laptop.

"We continue to see an increase in the deployment of laptops over desktops," says Jack Gold, a vice president at Meta Group, in Stamford, Conn. "Right now, about 25% of PCs sold into the enterprise are notebooks versus PCs. We expect that to be 40% to 45% in the next two to three years."

In fact, the NPD Group, a research company in Port Washington, N.Y., recently released numbers from its point of sale tracking service that show that notebooks outsold PCs for the first time this spring.

Laura DiDio, an analyst at Yankee Group, a research company in Boston, says that two main issues are driving the change.

The first is performance. DiDio, who has used a laptop since the early '90s, says that notebook users used to have to sacrifice a certain amount of performance in exchange for the mobility that a laptop brings. (Going back even further, laptop users were stuck with "luggables," supposedly portable PCs that weighed far more than today's lightweight versions.) "There was a big tradeoff in terms of configuration, performance and monitor clarity," she says. "They were all pretty kludgy, and it cost a lot more to manage those things. Not only that, but if you had a big problem with it, it was difficult to troubleshoot, and you had to ship it to the OEM or home office to get [it] fixed."

The second issue is price. Notebooks used to cost nearly double the price of a laptop, so IT departments were sparing in doling them out.

Today, however, performance has, for the most part, reached parity with desktop units, says Gold, noting that "85% to 90% of users don't come anywhere near exercising notebooks' full potential; parity on performance is there."

At the same time, notebook prices have plummeted. While a notebook will still run a little more than a desktop unit -- DiDio estimates about 10% more -- the mobility afforded the user can more than pay that back in terms of increased productivity. "Conservatively, companies are getting at least two to three hours more work a day with mobile and remote workers than they would using a desktop PC," she says.

The result? Business users are clamoring for notebooks. "The higher-level users are definitely pushing this," says Gold. "We think that nearly 75% of knowledge workers will be mobile at least 25% of the time within the next couple of years."

Smart CIOs will jump aboard this largely user-driven trend, even though the change could produce a few headaches for the IT department. Some of the issues to watch out for include the following:

  • Backup: Once a PC gets untethered from the corporate infrastructure, it becomes harder to back up reliably, thus increasing the risk that data will be lost. "Just because the users aren't in the office doesn't mean you can forget about backups," says Whitehouse. He advises that IT departments install a backup software package on each notebook. Once a user connects to the corporate network -- either remotely or in the office -- the software will back up the notebook data onto the network, thus keeping the backup schedule on track.
  • Security: There's no question that taking corporate data on the road is an increased security risk, just as there's also no question that most users will resist efforts from the IT department to impose what look like onerous security requirements. IT must balance ease of use with the need to safeguard data. At the very least, most analysts recommend password protection on the laptop, as well as firewall software and VPN use when connecting remotely.
  • Remote support: CIOs need to invest in training to make sure that their support staff can adequately support road warriors. "They need to be able to diagnose things that aren't in their presence, for example," says Gold. Likewise, users need to have a slightly higher level of expertise to be able to troubleshoot minor problems when on the road, he says.
  • Wear and tear: Fact: Notebooks just don't last as long. Gold says that, while companies replace desktops on average every three years, notebooks last two to three years on the outside. "That's because they break when people schlep them around," he says. A desktop is also easier to fix. For example, if a keyboard goes bad on a desktop, it's a simple matter to replace it. Not so with the notebook. CIOs should plan for increased repair costs for notebooks, and the smart place to start is with the warrantee. "Most companies do extended warrantees for notebooks at very reasonable prices," says Deirdre Woods, senior director of the computing and IT department at Wharton. "That makes repair less scary."

Bottom line: Despite the pain-in-the-neck factor for the IT department, laptops are only going to become more prevalent, so putting together a comprehensive laptop support program that encompasses the above points will only help the business in the long run. "People are going mobile for work," says Gold. "You need to enable that if you want to be competitive."

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