At Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company, one laptop was frozen solid (a liquid crystal display is a liquid, after all), another was recovered from the bottom of a creek bed, and another was sliced in half by a train.
The outsourcing option
In-house support of laptops is liable to cost a company more money by far than support of servers, says Ron Silliman, an analyst at Gartner. His view: The most cost-effective way to support laptops is to contract with third parties offering on-site support.
But many IT folks are unwilling to take that advice. Stephen Laster, CIO at 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.
Silliman agrees that universities are one place where on-site support can be cost-effective, mostly because of the almost free labour provided by the many work-study college students.
But Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway decided several years ago to outsource all of its IT support, not just the laptop portion, to IBM Global Services. "With [close to 40,000] users and such a far-flung area to cover, it was mainly a financial decision to outsource all of our computing infrastructure," says Brad Hanson, consulting systems engineer.
The same is true at Applied Materials, which outsources support for nearly 12,000 users through "badged" third-party employees who work in the company's various locations, says Matthew Archibald, senior director of global information security and risk management. "It's just so much more cost-effective with this many machines," he says.
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 an outraged laptop user at Applied Materials added up the time required each year to log into and unlock his laptop, multiplied it by 2,000 laptop users and declared, "Your 'need for protection' is costing the company more than [US]$26 million a year. Can't we just turn it off and save the company money?"
Damaged. Lost. Stolen. Too big; too small. Insecure and unreliable. And just plain annoying. Although many users can't imagine working without them, IT professionals say laptops are nothing short of a support nightmare.
Some cope by outsourcing support altogether, others by rigidly adhering to standards and trying not to take personally the hate mail they receive from disgruntled users.
Here, in no particular order, are the top 10 things IT professionals say they hate about laptops.
1 Battery life - what life?
Even though battery life in newer models can now top four hours, it's not nearly enough for mobile users and the IT pros who provide service for them. "I love my laptop - couldn't live without it - but I really hate it, too," says Dr. Joshua Lee, medical director of information services at the University of California, San Diego, Medical Center in La Jolla. "Battery, battery, battery. It is such a pain."
Lee, who is both a practising physician and an IT director, oversees a team of 50-plus laptop-carrying doctors who sometimes are forced to stop treating a patient and go search for an AC adapter cord so they can continue making notes in a patient's record.
2 Laptops get banged up and broken
"A lot of these laptops are assembled in China, and let's face it, they are flimsy," says Long Le, IT director at Atlas Air, an international air freight company in New York.
Le oversees 300 laptops that travel to far-flung locales like Asia, South America and Europe. And not all of those laptops travel business class, so he sees a lot of broken hinges and cracked screens and cases - not to mention parts that just fall off.
3 They're tough to fix, and they die young
On average, laptops last three to four years, compared with four to five years for desktops, according to research firm IDC. Matthew Archibald, senior director of global information security and risk management at Applied Materials in California, has noticed a built-in obsolescence in laptops. "The parts last a certain length of time and that's it," he says. "They're tougher to work on, take more expertise and create potentially a lot longer downtime to fix if they have to be shipped to a service center. They're very frustrating."
4 They get lost
At Burlington Northern, consulting systems engineer Brad Hanson says it can be tough to find the company's laptops when they need be to upgraded. That's because tens of thousands of users are constantly moving around BNSF's 32,000 miles of railroad routes, which pass through 28 US states and two Canadian provinces.
5 They're difficult to secure, digitally and physically
Whether they're hacked while logged onto an unsecure public Wi-Fi connection or stolen from an airport restroom, laptops are vulnerable in ways their deskbound cousins never are. Anyone can look over the shoulder of a laptop user at a coffee shop or on an airplane and spy a spreadsheet with next year's corporate financials neatly displayed. And public Wi-Fi networks can be compromised in numerous ways.
6 Security precautions drive users crazy
Users complain that there are too many roadblocks to working online: passwords, screen locks and complex procedures for logging onto VPNs, plus the risk of getting booted off unsecure Wi-Fi connections. They're often in denial about the need for security, says Archibald, who says he recently received an email from a user asking, "We're not building nuclear bombs here, why do I have to type in so many passwords?"
7 Wi-Fi is still the Wild, Wild West
Configuring laptops for wireless connectivity and keeping those configurations up to date are among the biggest nightmares IT professionals face on a daily basis. IT must decide which air cards to use, whether to employ encryption or set up a VPN, and for which employees and under what circumstances. Should the company support mom-and-pop providers for its users on the road, or only big, trusted carriers? What about employees with their own home office routers and networks? The support issues are never-ending, IT managers say.
And clueless users make everything worse, says Vince Kellen, vice president of information services at DePaul University in Chicago. "Wireless overwhelms nontechnical people," he says flatly. "Users just can't grasp the complexity."
8 Laptops spawn uber-entitled users
The nature of mobile computing has given users the expectation that they ought to be able to work when and where they want to, regardless of what it takes to support them. "They can't get online at a friend's house, so they can't pick their football draft in their football pool, so I need to fix this situation immediately," Archibald says. "I get beat up by users every single day who want to be able to do whatever they want and have us support it."
9 They're too big or too small
Laptops are either too large - leading users to complain about lugging all that weight around - or they're too small, leaving users who have fat fingers feeling persecuted.
10 Software performance just ain't the same
Users want the power, speed, connectivity and full-bodied applications of a desktop PC packed into a unit that's effortlessly portable with long battery life. But in reality, big applications just don't work as well on a laptop. When users want to multitask with complex applications, even the fastest notebook processor can bog down.
Rice is a freelance writer in West Newbury, Massachusetts.