Web Informant #305, 12 November 2002:

Leave the laptop home




Articles in today's New York Times talk about how fewer people are carrying laptops when they travel, and how more people are using wireless devices when they are on planes. I have noticed this myself. Indeed, I first wrote about the leaving-the-laptop topic five years ago in WI #92. How is that for being ahead of the curve?



It is ironic, though. More and more of us are using laptops as our main desktop (indeed, I am typing this on my laptop now). And even though laptops have gotten lighter and more powerful, it is more painful to tote them around these days. There are several reasons: You have to do the dance at airport security and take them out of your bags. You have to do the dance at the hotel to hook them up (although many hotels now offer in-room broadband Ethernet for about $10 a day, a fee that I gladly pay when I do bring my laptop). You have to do the dance with your company's VPN software if you care about securing your data. You have to bring along at least a spare battery if you are going to use them on your flight.


But the biggest reason that laptops are trouble has nothing to do with the technology. It is because we as a traveling public have gotten wider, and seat pitch has gotten smaller. On my last flight, I saw three oversized passengers try to squeeze into the bulkhead seats in front of me. They physically couldn't do it, and I and my traveling companion graciously switched with two of them so they could expand into the row of three seats behind them. If you are sitting next to, or behind, such plus-sized people, you cannot possibly work on your laptop. (Many friends of mine have had their laptops ruined when the person in front reclines the seat quickly and crunches their screen.) Which is why people are resorting to carrying Blackberries and Palms and using them on in-flight.


Now, I am not qualified to say whether using a radio device while flying interferes with cockpit instruments. But who wants to take a chance, especially these days of such fearful fliers? I went to my friend and radio expert Bill Frezza, a partner at Adams Capital Management. He is quite plain in his view: "Turn the darn thing off. When the door closes, shut your stupid phone. I say this being a wireless junkie. If you want to play solitaire on your Blackberry or other gizmo, then at least push the button and turn off the transmitter. And leave it off until you get back on the ground. Whatever you are doing can wait. If you such a big cheese, pay the $4 a minute and use the in-flight phone system."


I do know that the cellular radios can make it difficult for the terrestrial networks to figure out where those signals are coming from, and that is probably a very good reason not to use cell phones on planes. Frezza says that passengers making calls on their cell phones are "bad for the cellular system because it eats up their network capacity. Using the phone at 5 miles up can light up all the cell towers that the phone can see from the plane. The networks weren't designed for this kind of usage, and it can really cause havoc on their networks."


There are other non-technology reasons. When I leave my laptop at home, I generally find it to be a liberating experience. One of the reasons I travel is to see new products, meet new people, and be in new situations (and that is just the business portion of the trip!). Bringing a laptop means that I am at its beck and call, and have less time to explore and be exposed to the shock of the new.


Sure, I get behind on the email flow, but that isn't always a bad thing. When I need a fix, there are plenty of Internet cafes and cheap to free computer centers, ranging from Kinko's (open all night) to public libraries. (My favorite is the Science library in midtown Manhattan, located next to the world's largest and free magazine rack, just the thing for a magazine editor.) And these days even if I do bring my laptop there are plenty of wireless "hot spots" scattered around the countryside, ranging from the local Starbucks and paid ones to freely accessible ones either by design or by unintended consequences.


So leave the laptop home, I say. And if you are on the plane, keep the cell phone off when the crew so instructs you.


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