ANALYSIS: Managing Laptop PCs

By Chris Gloede

With the enormous popularity of laptop computers and end users' proclivity to bludgeon even the most standardized setup, keeping those suckers running can prove to be an enormous and thankless task.

I manage all of the systems at my company. As a consulting organization, the majority of our systems are laptop PCs. It is fairly easy to ensure they are all set up the same way and are stable when I send them out. But, as the overwhelming majority of them are Windows 95 machines, keeping them stable is another issue. We rely on people to check their e-mail, backup their hard drives (each user has a secure backup directory on one of our servers), and generally keep the machines clean. We ensure that all of the applications required to perform their jobs are properly installed and configured.

Something happens when we hand over this valuable piece of corporate productivity to our end users. They lose all sense of the purpose of that tool. I know of laptop users whose settings have been corrupted by their kids while the kids were playing with the laptop. Other users are installing anti-virus software on the machine that already has anti-virus software on it. Still there are other cases where users insist on experimenting with Alpha versions of applications until such time as they render their laptop inoperable.

Why do they do this? Is this some perverted, twisted cry for attention, or is it a blatant disregard for someone else's property?

I try to remind each one of our users that the laptop I am about to hand them belongs to the company and is on loan to them. That they are not to install software, play with settings, use it as an impromptu high chair or umbrella, and that they should respect it as a valuable corporate asset. I work with some truly intelligent, professional people, but when I give them this toy, it's like setting a five year old loose in a toy store.

There are many tools designed to help you manage a network, what software is installed, configuration settings, space utilization, etc. Windows NT enables the securing of users and prohibiting them from making any changes at all. Ever play with Windows NT on laptops? This is not for the weak of heart. Anyway, many of these tools require that I am able to connect to the machine in question, if not continuously, on some regular basis. Since I have no control over when my users will connect (mostly by way of dial up) these controls fall short.

The short term answer in my company is essentially to live with the problem until such time as I am feeling up to installing Windows NT on all of these laptops and setting the users up with limited abilities. I hate to do this, but they give me no alternative.

I have gone as far as to stop repairing the laptop of one of my users. He just doesn't seem to get the fact that this machine is not for his experimentation or amusement. He insists on installing the latest versions of each product he can find, removing drives and reconfiguring the machine. This was funny for a while but has gotten old. What he does not realize is that he is dangerously close to losing his laptop. This is ridiculous because with that he will also be losing a significant productivity tool.

Windows 2000 should provide a great deal more stability and ease of setup on laptop computers. Since the proliferation of these machines has become so great this is sorely needed. Once done, ordinary users should be (and rest assured will be in my company) as restricted in their use of these machines as they are in the desktop environment.

Until then, you may want to make sure the children within your organization have machines that can be corrupted without disastrous consequences. If their machine does get corrupted, try making them suffer just a little bit. Maybe that will get through.

A veteran of the IBM midrange arena since 1983, Chris Gloede is executive VP for Business Solutions Group in Wayne, Pa. cgloede@thebsg.com.