Portable computers have changed the way business operates, so much so that we literally cannot imagine a work life without them. That said, IT professionals, whether they're dealing with accident-prone users or keeping the network secure, say laptops are nothing short of a support nightmare.
Some cope by outsourcing support altogether (see Laptops: To outsource or not); others cope by rigidly adhering to standards and trying not to personally take the hate mail they receive from disgruntled end users.
Either way, IT executives have a lot to say on the subject of laptops, nearly none of it good.
And that's just tough luck, because sales of laptops in the business sector are growing 20% a quarter, while sales of desktop computers are declining sharply, according to IDC.
By this time next year, IDC says, shipments of business laptops will have surpassed that of desktops, and the gap will continue to widen. This year alone, laptop sales in the US are expected to hit 31.7 million units.
IT has to support those 31.7 million machines, quickly and efficiently, whether the units are ensconced at a Starbucks or being dragged around remotest Africa, or even when the machine is run over by a train and sliced in half.
But we didn't say IT had to like it.
Here we present, in no particular order, the top 10 things IT professionals absolutely hate about laptops. (And yes, we did have to edit down a very long list.)
1. Battery life still bombs
Battery life has long been the Achilles heel of laptops, and even though battery life in newer models can now top four hours, it's not enough for mobile users and the IT pros who service them. Not nearly.
"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 at San Diego Medical Centre. "Battery, battery, battery ... it is such a pain."
Lee, who is both a practising physician and an IT director, means that literally. He oversees a team of 50-plus laptop-carrying doctors who sometimes are forced to stop a patient exam and go search for an AC adapter cord so they can continue making notes on the patient's records. "There's the hunting for the plug, then the unplugging and wrapping up of the cord ... it just feels weird to be doing all that in front of a patient," Lee says.
And, of course, there's always the chance that it's the wrong cord. Though the UCSD Medical Centre primarily uses Dell laptops and desktops, other organisations aren't as standardised on a single brand. For example, at the Kansas Department of Transportation in Topeka, when laptops hit the road, it's not always with the right AC adapter. "Why can't power cords just be standardised?" asks a frustrated Sue Swartzman, data centre manager. "Why do they even have those things? There has to be a better solution."
2. Laptops get broken
The number one place laptops get damaged is on airplanes, according to our highly informal survey of support managers. That guy in front stretches out, jams the tray table down and smashes the nice new laptop in the process.
"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, a large international air freight company.
Le oversees 300 laptops travelling to the far-flung reaches of Asia, South America and Europe. Not all of those laptops travel business class, so he sees a lot of broken hinges from tray-table mishaps, as well as cracked screens and cases and parts that just decide to fall off.
But not even business-class travellers are immune. At Harvard Business School in Boston, certain unnamed campus leaders and senior managers sometimes forget and check their laptops in their luggage, which makes CIO Stephen Laster crazy. "Laptops are way too fragile for that," he says, recalling more than a few cracked cases and screens.
Laster does not stop there. With more than 3,000 laptops under his watchful eye, he's well aware the delicate machines are simply not suited for life in the real world. There are dangers everywhere: the spilled can of Diet Coke (particularly common at Harvard) or the venti latte (ditto) as well as everyday dangers like the drop into a puddle or the threat of children, who play with mom and dad's laptop a bit too roughly, and poof, there goes the door to the CD drive.
Imagine the potential dangers in the Manatee County Schools, where they have given each child a laptop of his own. While Tina Barrios, supervisor of instructional technology, says she's thrilled how well the rollout of nearly 10,000 Apple laptops has been received by her pint-size customers, she admits it's taken work to educate them on how to handle their new computing tools.
Of course, there have been a few problems. "The laptops seem to get tripped over a lot," she says, and then there are those few that have been dropped out of cars or trucks. It's not always a pretty outcome; luckily, she says, support is in-house.
3. They're tough to fix, and they die young
Laptops last, on average, three to four years as compared to the healthier four to five years of the average desktop, according to IDC. Even worse, anecdotal evidence indicates many truly mobile laptops never make it past the two-to-three-year mark.
Not only do laptops live shorter (and more difficult) lives than desktops, they definitely go down fighting, which is to say they give IT departments a much harder time when it comes to upgrades and repairs.
Today's laptops are built just like today's cars, says Matthew Archibald, senior director of global information security and risk management at Applied Materials. Buy a new car, and the owner's manual will tell you to change the timing belt at 50,000 miles, he explains. If you don't do it, the timing belt will go at exactly 51,000 miles. It's a kind of built-in obsolescence, Archibald says, and he sees the exact same scenario with laptops.
"As the cost of laptops has come down, the parts, from drives to boards, last a certain length of time and that's it," he says. "Add to that the fact that 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 centre, they're very frustrating."
Applied Materials, which has gone almost completely mobile, has more than 12,000 laptops deployed. Archibald likes to do a technology refresh every two to three years on laptops, but in recent years, it's much closer to two years "because the hardware starts to fail."
Motherboards are often the first thing to go, hard drives may need to be updated, and smaller things like the screen hinges or the locking switch fail, too. But Archibald employs a hard and fast rule: If it costs more than $300 to refresh, it's time for a new machine.
4. They get lost
Bob Vesely has a simple reason why he hates laptops: They're easy to lose.
Luckily for Vesely, IT manager at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, the number of laptops he oversees is small, around 40 or so. But Vesely nevertheless tries to guard them zealously, because in his organisation, a lost laptop affects more than one user.
Once zoo staffers retire a laptop, it's sent to wildlife researchers in Papua New Guinea and other places. The zoo benefits from that research, so it's a win-win situation, assuming the machines do not get lost. Vesely sees laptops getting lost most during business trips.
5. They're difficult to secure, digitally and physically
Whether they're being hacked while using an insecure public Wi-Fi connection or being stolen from the airport men's room, laptops are vulnerable to theft in ways their deskbound cousins never are.
Applied Materials' Archibald says the threat of digital intrusion keeps him up at night, though thus far his company hasn't experienced any breaches directly.
Like many other IT managers, he's well aware that someone can physically look over the shoulder of a laptop user at a coffee shop or on the airplane, easily getting a gander at his password or a spreadsheet with next year's corporate financials neatly displayed.
And he knows that public Wi-Fi networks can be compromised in numerous ways, from false network-identification schemes (where users appear to be logging onto one network but are in actuality logged onto a different network), to insufficiently secure authentication pages, where data like network passwords can be captured and reused, to intercepted transmissions, a problem for users who don't use encryption while on the road.
BNSF has been lucky, too. Given the far-flung nature of the railway business, relatively few laptops have been stolen, Hanson says, but it does happen. One of the most recent incidents was when a car was stolen with a company laptop inside. Both car and computer were recovered from the bottom of a pond (with the laptop data amazingly intact, if soggy).
Though Hanson is quick to point out that his company does not have any more laptops stolen than any other firm doing similar remote business, the railway does takes the theft risk to laptops seriously, recently giving all its users a detailed list of warnings and tips designed to help cut down on this particular type of loss.
6. Security precautions make users nuts
It all comes down this plaintive cry: "Why can't I connect?" Or perhaps the better question is, why isn't it easier to connect? Between passwords, screen locks, complicated procedures to log onto virtual private networks and the risk of getting booted off an "insecure" Wi-Fi connection, well, it's not always easy for users to get online just anywhere.
That's as it should be, says Greg Fay, chief information security officer for the State of Iowa, who admits he gets lots of practice trying to justify this stance. Although Iowa is not guarding trade secrets, "there is always something we're doing that we wouldn't like the media to know about until it's ready to go."
To address these security concerns, the State of Iowa is just a few months away from implementing a state-wide standard; a pre-boot, full-disk encryption for every laptop that it hopes will beef up security. But Fay doesn't think that will solve the issue of his users wanting to log on at Starbucks, a desire he tries to squelch as much as possible. Even with the full-disk encryption, an open Wi-Fi network still isn't guaranteed safe, he feels, and his users "just don't seem to understand that."
Users are in denial, agrees Applied Materials' Archibald, who quotes from a recent user email that asked, "We're not building nuclear bombs here, why do I have to type in so many passwords?"
Many users don't understand that data in transit needs to be protected, unlike data at rest, Fay says, and they really don't want to understand it. They just want to be able to do what they want.
"To make our lives easier, we want a technology solution to security problems, not a user one," Fay says, meaning he's more than ready to stop wrangling with users about what they can and can't do on their laptops while out in public. A technology solution, one that would take the onus off the users (and presumably, off the IT call centre) would be the way to go.
7. Wi-Fi is still the Wild, Wild West
The challenge of configuring laptops for wireless connectivity, and keeping them up to date, is probably the single biggest nightmare IT professionals face daily, they say.
IT must decide which air cards to use, and if they're going to employ encryption or set up a VPN, and if so, 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 routers and networks in a home-office environment? The questions go on and on, as do the support issues, IT managers say.
It's made worse by the fact that most users are clueless, says Vince Kellen, vice president of information services at DePaul University in Chicago. "Wireless overwhelms non-technical people," he says flatly. "There are literally 20 to 30 different topics related to the choices we make about technology and upgrading, and the users just can't grasp the complexity."
So not only is he trying to stay ahead of the Wi-Fi curve, he's often making the case, to do the right thing to stay secure, to a user community that is at best confused and at worst completely uninterested.
BNSF's Hanson knows exactly what Kellen is talking about. "Wireless is the biggest nightmare we have right now," he says. "The technology changes all the time and we just can't keep up."
His particular pet peeve is air cards, where, he says, the standards take so long to settle and become "commercial" that by the time they do, they're obsolete, leaving him stuck with a long-term contract to purchase cards that no longer do the job. "The connection managers can't keep up, and then the cards don't work," Hanson explains. But to streamline support, the company has to standardise on something. Can someone say catch-22?
8. Laptops spawn a new breed of uber-entitled user
Fay really hates the fact that his users watch TV. Those glossy ads of people effortlessly using laptops in a diner, or on a mountaintop or while driving, all give his users ideas. Bad ideas. Ideas that make them expect that they can be online anywhere and everywhere.
"Television [ads] make everything [seem] so easy and apparently so secure. We are constantly fighting that tide," he says. The problem, he explains, is that the very 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's involved in supporting them.
They want their instant connection and they want it now, and when the IT call centre cannot give it to them, well, watch out.
"I get emails constantly from people saying they can't get online at a friend's house, so they can't pick their football draft in their football pool, so I'm getting in the way of their personal life and I need to fix this situation immediately," Applied Materials' 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."
When support employees are not struggling to get remote users online for their own personal needs, they're fending off users who want, nay demand, that their laptops boot up instantly and stay on no matter what, no boot-up passwords and no screen locks, thank you very much. "Users tell me regularly 'the damn screen lock is killing my productivity,'" Archibald says.
9. They're too big or too small
Laptops are either too large, which causes users to complain about lugging all that extra weight around, or they're too small, which means no one can type on them. Finding a happy medium seems to elude many IT organisations.
Harvard Business School offers both standard and three-quarter-size laptops, but CIO Laster says his users are willing to trade weight for a larger screen and keyboard. "Most people just hate those three-quarter-size machines," he says.
At the KDOT, Swartzman says she hears a lot of complaints she really can't do much about. Her users hate the touch pads, but don't want to bring an external mouse along. A fully featured laptop with a usable keyboard is too heavy, users say. Or they like a laptop's weight, but then the screen's too small. In other words, laptops "just aren't ergonomically friendly, and they're never the right size," she says of her 600 to 700 deployed units. "It's frustrating."
Even when they are the right size, well, that size might be too big to actually handle safely. At DePaul, Kellen says the "big" laptops are back in vogue, a lot of his users want the larger screens for media viewing, but the bigger they are, the more likely they are to get dropped, he says. And unfortunately, that isn't an isolated event on his campus.
Then there's the matter of actually being able to do anything with the keyboard at hand. Among IT professionals, there are two universal laptop truths: not everyone has slender fingers, and most people can't actually type. Add those up and you get "fat hand syndrome."
"Many of my users hate the keyboard layout on 17-in. laptops or smaller," KDOT's Swartzman says. "They've got fat fingers."
UCSD's Lee agrees, and thinks it's worse for some people than others. "On behalf of my orthopaedic surgeon colleagues, can I just ask for a larger keyboard? They have big fingers and can't type. Small keyboards are a nightmare for us."
10. Software performance just isn’t the same.
Users want all the power, speed, connectivity and full-bodied applications of a desktop machine, all packed into a unit that's effortlessly portable with long battery life.
The reality, though? Big applications just don't work as well on a laptop. Sure, your standard-issue laptop can chomp along nicely on a complex inventory spreadsheet or a 275-slide PowerPoint presentation. The problem comes when users want to multitask between the two, say when creating a presentation. Even the fastest notebook processor and cache memory bog down under that demand, support managers say.
When that happens, IT folks have to listen to the complaints and try to come up with a workable solution. Add on top of that the negative effects of memory-hogging antivirus software, points out DePaul's Kellen, and you have yourself one significant drag on laptop software performance.
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 mouldy five-year-old technology used in hotel "business centres."
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.