With exploding batteries and terror threats prompting airlines to restrict laptop use, alternatives are coming in for serious consideration for mobile working
The Sony battery recall affecting the major laptop manufacturers has brought into question whether end-users actually need laptops at all.
The recall quickly prompted airlines to warn travellers not to take onto flights any affected laptops powered by internal batteries. And the terror alert during the summer also led for a short time to all laptops going into the baggage hold - a situation that could arise again.
Not surprisingly, businesses are beginning to ask whether a typical executive could live without their laptop. With a new generation of mobile devices emerging, led by smartphones, Blackberrys and Windows Mobile 5.0, there is growing evidence that they are presenting a real alternative to traditional laptops and notebook PCs.
Given the current uncertainty surrounding laptops, Mark Blowers, senior research analyst at Butler Group, has recommended that IT directors should now question issuing laptops, regardless of what end-users want.
Many organisations routinely give laptops to staff requiring remote access, but Blowers said the case was now far less compelling.
For communications purposes, employees could swap their laptop for a smartphone, Blackberry or Mobile Windows 5.0 device, he pointed out. And for access at home or other offices, staff could often connect securely via a desktop to the corporate network through a virtual private network (VPN), he said.
Ovum principal analyst Jeremy Green said that with Wi-Fi built into small devices, people could connect to networks much more easily than before, reducing the need to carry around a laptop that has been fully configured to connect to the corporate network.
Blowers said that the form-based applications run by mobile users could also run on devices such as smartphones. He cited as an example Scottish Water's recent decision to issue its field engineers with smartphones rather than ruggedised laptops.
But figures from analyst firm Gartner paint a different picture, suggesting that organisations will continue to deploy laptops widely in the years ahead, partly as replacements for desktops.
Gartner analyst Nick Jones said, "Smartphones are not realistic replacements for laptops".
Jones said smartphones were unsuitable for content generation and editing tasks requiring Microsoft Office-type applications, and were better suited to instant-access-style usage.
But he did regard the availability of Ajax-based browsers on smartphones as a big boost for mobile applications.
Another possibility for firms to consider is the use of thin-client devices to access corporate systems, phasing out localised data storage, whether on desktops or laptops.
"CIOs see the potential for Citrix-based thin-client technology, which can be used to access the corporate network from any PC," said Jones.
But again, as with smartphones, Jones said mobile thin clients were not ideal for running applications such as PowerPoint and Excel.
One longer-term vision comes from EDS futurist Jeff Wacker. He said that evolving technologies could render laptops obsolete.
"One day soon, storage will be carried on-person, IT will be available anywhere from a computing grid, and technology such as organic light-emitting diodes will allow any surface to be used as a display," he said [see box on left].
Whatever the future holds, it seems clear that IT departments expect to deploy more mobile devices to connect securely to corporate systems to access data. That in turn should shrink demand for laptops.
A recent study from Juniper Research forecasts that by 2011 users will spend £2.6bn a year installing antivirus, VPN, data and file encryption and mobile identity management applications on mobile phone devices. And that points to different modes of mobile working in the near future.
The ultimate mobile?
Researchers at the Resonantware labs at NEC have been working on a series of projects called Near-Future Ubiquitous Networking Devices Visualised by Designers. One of the more interesting ideas is for a portable PC based on a pen. Called P-ISM, the gadget separates the PC's main functions into five devices shaped like fountain pens that users could carry in their pocket.
One pen is a mobile phone with a handwriting data input function another is a virtual keyboard the third is a tiny projector, the fourth a scanner and camera function, and the fifth is a personal ID key.
The components of the P-ISM connect via short-range wireless technology. The whole set-up is also connected to the internet through the mobile phone function.
Next generation displays
Organic light-emitting diodes (OLED), are designed to replace liquid crystal displays on laptops and handheld computers. Pioneered by Kodak, OLED technology uses substances that emit red, green, blue or white light.
Unlike LCDs, OLEDs need no backlight to illuminate the display. Instead, an electrical charge causes the organic layer of the display to emit light. The omission of the bulky backlight makes an OLED display cheaper to manufacture than a conventional LCD, and thinner and lighter too.
It also means that OLEDs can be installed on almost any surface and could be used to overcome the limitation of small displays on smartphones.