Rethinking Mobile Computing

The indignities laptops are prone to-on the road and especially in the air-put your data at risk. Storage Supersite Editor David Morgenstern counsels that a wise investment in portable hard-disk storage will improve its odds of survival-and

How much are you willing to bet at a time? A couple of bucks on the Lotto? A five or ten spot at the track? Or how about a throw of the dice for your notebook computer? Perhaps only a few would take that last wager—unless theyre on the way to the airport.

A coalition of market forces are arrayed against your notebook at the airport: the downsizing of the airline industry and increased air travel security. Against these foes, its tough to see how the notebook can come up a winner. Still, all computing may not be lost, if todays storage vendors will just dust off antiquated marketing plans.

This prediction was spurred by this weeks business travel column in the New York Times. Joe Sharkey described the small overhead storage compartments in the jet ("about the size of a glove compartment in a 1968 Chevy") and similarly sized seats.

Like Sharkey, we would assume that we will have room for our carry-on baggage, especially our portable computer. But its no guarantee.

"At the jetway, an airline functionary seized my single carry-on bag, the size of a modest backpack, with my laptop inside," Sharkey continued. "It must be checked into the cargo hold, I was informed."

Everyone whos traveled with a computer has his or her own share of travel horror stories. Ive watched as my laptop took a dive from the overhead compartment, yanked out by frantic fellow passengers, over-eager to take their place in the aisle. Arrrgh!

While a good protective briefcase can ward off most of the consequences of occasional bumps and falls, no backpack or briefcase can protect a notebook from the ill handling it will receive in an airplane baggage compartment. Sharkeys machine suffered a cracked battery. It could have been much worse.

So, as the constrained space of smaller jet planes become the rule, and security gets tighter, would you be willing to bet your notebook investment your next airplane ride? Is the trip worth the cost of a new battery or LCD screen? Or just getting lost in the shuffle?

Of course, portable hard-disk storage can be the answer. Or a big part of the answer.

Years ago, before the introduction of true laptop computers, vendors of then-high-capacity cartridge drives pushed the notion that users could move their entire computing environment—data, applications and operating system with preferences—between desktop computers.

While this notion was great in concept, it fell short in two practical areas: First, you had to purchase two of these removable-media drives or make sure that one was on each end of your workflow; and second, the devices didnt provide the access and throughput performance to support such a scheme in everyday use.

However, todays portable USB 2.0 and FireWire drives are small, sturdy and actually offer the performance to do the job. If they support external booting, then almost everything is ready.

Then the issue becomes the task of finding a suitable computer to which you can connect your drive. In our modern age, instead of desktops, youd move your drive between laptops.

For business travel, this scheme could offer the perfect service opportunity. A small computer-support business could contract rental laptops for hotel customers. An inexpensive machine would cost less to rent than a faster model with a bigger screen. With a regular stream of customers, the rental cost could be kept down. Customers would use the notebook in the room, or wherever they wanted, taking it to meetings or into the park.

Current notebooks are brilliant designs, offering a full computing experience almost anywhere, or as long as your battery holds out. However, a more sensible view of mobility may require you to separate device and data well before the airport check-in line.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.