‘Road warrior’ tools not one-size-fits-all

High-end mobile users have only one thing in common - they are very demanding

The executive traveller might just be the most difficult class of user that IT has to service. These people are demanding and experienced; they have their own technology preferences — and they have authority within the organisation.

They are sometimes called “road warriors”, and yet they are almost impossible to define as a class, says Warwick Grey, Hewlett-Packard’s marketing manager for small- and medium-sized businesses.

“What is a road warrior?” he asks. “A CIO, someone working from home, or working for a multinational, or a small trader? There are different parameters,” he says.

“The term doesn’t mean a lot, to be perfectly honest,” agrees HP’s manager of business notebooks, Simon Molloy. “Everyone has their own needs.”

One common thread, however, is that they are all quite demanding.

Connectivity is a key requirement. Mobile workers want to be able to connect, and to connect from anywhere. But the platform used can vary greatly according to taste — and within the limits of corporate policy, of course.

Different users may also demand different laptop form-factors, with some preferring ultralight models, while others opt for thin-and-light, with yet others looking for performance units.

Molloy says connectivity, portability and reliability are absolutely key, too, for international travellers. International service is another must. Dell’s Australia and New Zealand business development manager, Stuart King agrees, saying vendors in the corporate market are measured on their ability to execute overseas. Obtaining service also has to be easy, he says. Accordingly, Dell offers a range of warranty and insurance options, depending on the laptop involved and the buyer’s needs.

As for connectivity, Grey says modern laptops pretty well have the connectivity issue covered, offering wi-fi, cable and (as a fall-back) dial-up options. King adds 3G, Bluetooth and GB Ethernet to the list of connectivity modes now demanded by power-users.

Users, however, can find themselves between a rock and a hard place, with large enterprises being quite prescriptive in the mobile platforms they provide, both in terms of hardware and software. It is easier to support a single platform than to support a plethora of different hardware and software configurations.

“That’s key for CIOs,” says Grey. “A standard [disk] image is dominant over user choice.”

Molloy agrees enterprise customers require mobility, and that means the same notebooks and the same disk image on a regular, managed upgrade cycle, so that 12 months down the track they are not running into driver and BIOS issues.

Security is another key concern in the corporate market. Dell’s King says data protection is “a huge consideration”. Dell also emphasises the Trusted Platform Module, to prevent data loss, a system used by several leading laptop vendors. This delivers secure data encryption and now also integrates with Microsoft Vista’s BitLocker. Buyers have a range of other security options, King says, including fingerprint scanners.

“Dell’s Latitudes ship with an Altiris client, backing up to a local or external disk,” he says.

The controlled corporate approach is in stark contrast to the way the consumer market operates. Disk images in the consumer market change far more frequently and mobile hardware tends to feature the latest cutting edge technologies – as well as the appearance of the machine being more “design driven” than in the corporate market.

Corporate customers get a smart modern look and feature-set, but it’s also one that doesn’t change as quickly. To some extent this serves to alleviate jealousy in the organisation. People are less inclined to think someone else has been favoured more than they have when the overall look is always corporate.

For fleets, it helps if other accessories are standard. Batteries should be able to slot into any one of the company’s machines, no matter what model or generation, as should power cables. Docking stations should also be standard. This allows line-of-business teams to share accessories as and when needed.

King emphasises that no matter what the form-factor of the notebook, whether rugged, thin-and-light or mainstream, peripheral devices should be interchangeable, especially in a fleet situation.

Battery power remains a challenge for mobile users, but long-life travel batteries are an answer to this particular headache. Molloy describes battery life as the “holy grail” of mobile solutions.

That’s something PC World reviews editor Scott Bartley agrees with.

“Top of the wish-list should be extended battery life. Most laptops seem to max out around three hours, depending on the type of use, with the standard battery option,” Bartley says. “Most vendors sell larger batteries that you can squeeze even more time out of, but, naturally, these come at the expense of bulk — they’re bigger and heavier.”

Bartley says the best battery life he’s ever seen is around the four hours mark — just enough for a flight to Australia.

Bartley sounds bleak about the prospects of a quick fix for the battery life issue.

“Strangely enough, battery life seems to have ground to a halt. There are no new battery developments on the horizon either,” he says. “I talked to a Lenovo engineer not long ago and asked him about innovations in battery life and he said there was nothing.”

“HP aims to make sure people get a whole day’s work from a battery,” Molloy says.

Molloy says Vista delivers some features that make mobile life easier, including fast resume from standby and a new mobility centre consolidating mobile management. Grey adds that Vista’s drive-locking, which allows users to encrypt the disk, has made mobility safer.

Robustness is another issue, says Bartley.

“True mobile warriors give their notebooks a hammering, so build-quality needs to be top notch, otherwise the notebook will be scratched-up in no time, suffer from cracked screens, keys falling off and, worst of all, maybe even have its hard drive or other sensitive internal organs die,” he says.

Here the big players in the corporate market take quite different approaches. HP and Toshiba, for instance, use accelerometer technology, which retracts the heads of the hard drive if the laptop is dropped, even from a very low height. Conversely, Dell swears by its “Strike Zone”, which is basically rubberised feet that absorb any impact, combined with a metal chassis. Reinforced screens are also a feature. Dell emphasises, however, that, as it builds to order, it will provide other forms of protection, including accelerometer technology, if asked.

Vendors are also pondering the ever-accelerating convergence of the home and the office, which sees home users increasingly requiring what would once have been enterprise-standard storage, connectivity and more.

Further into the future, HP is pondering new mobility enhancing technologies, such as a wireless hub built into a wristwatch form-factor — so you can take your hotspot with you wherever you go. How good would that be?

But, more immediately, the greatest innovation on the horizon is likely to be solid-state memory, says Bartley.

“The biggest news in recent weeks for mobile users is the development of a 6GB solid-state hard drive by SanDisk. There are no moving parts, so it’s more energy efficient and less prone to failure while on the go and, at 64GB, it’s big enough to be useful, although most likely rather expensive,” he says.

Often the consumer market is a testing ground for technologies that emerge in the business space a year or two later. Given that, enterprises should be warned: consumer PC sales at some retailers are now running at 80% laptops compared with 20% desktops.

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