(Written August, 2001)
As I write this, here in deep coach on United 1777 to O'Hare, the person in the seat in front of me just took advantage of the full range of his seatback travel. I've seen this sort of move break laptops in half. I've seen people, exasperated, fold up their tray tables and use their laps as the name implies, folding the screen forwards in a way that gives the impression they could watch a feature film at a drive-in from the window of a 747 in midair. But it doesn't bother me, not at all, and therein hangs a tale.
Almost ten years ago, I wrote an article called "My two laptops". It posited that the best computer to travel with was actually two computers, and that even on the road there are tradeoffs between smallness and capability that you just don't want to live with all the time. In 1992, my big laptop of choice was an employer-supplied IBM L40. My small machine was a Poqet PC which had been my faithful traveling companion for two years and would be for almost two more, outlasting three of its larger brethren. On the airplane, the IBM went in the overhead and the Poqet went on the tray table. In the hotel room or the office, the L40 was the computer of choice. In meetings or taking notes on my feet, the Poqet was the winner again. Seamless transfers between the two computers made choosing the right computer literally a moment-to-moment decision.
Fast-forward to 2001. Technology has changed, and so has the economy. My employer, a large technology consulting company, has decided to give me the opportunity to do first-hand research on the state of the job market, along with about 1500 of my co-workers. As a newly independent (sounds so much better than "unemployed") consultant, I was faced with a curious decision. Having purchased and configured thousands of computers for other people as a function of my former jobs, I now had to buy just one, for myself. Fortunately my work had brought me into contact with laptops of all sizes and weights, from minuscule, 3 pound subnotes to giant multimedia powerhouses. Conceptually I've always been attracted to small machines, but in real life I've never enjoyed handling all the outboard components and associated cables that come along with really tiny computers. My prior computer, an IBM ThinkPad 600E, was a nice compromise, but I always had the resources of my tech lab at work for occasional operations like writing CDs and performing system backups. Now I was on my own. I could buy a decent, mid-range laptop for the road and a low-end but full-featured desktop to serve as my home base. I was moving toward that solution when the lessons of 1992 came back to me and made the solution obvious.
So here I am, in seat 27C on United 1777 to Chicago, typing this article on my trusty Psion Series 5mx.The Psion, which combines the best features of PDAs and pocket computers, is the spiritual descendant of the old Poqet. It has more memory, better applications, and almost as good a keyboard, in a smaller package that unlike its predecessor actually fits in a pants pocket. My new laptop, an eight-pound Dell Inspiron 8000 with internal CD-RW and DVD and the sweetest 15-inch LCD panel I've ever seen, is resting comfortably in the overhead in my old L40 bag. (Ever notice how computer bags last at least twice as long as the computers they came with? But that's another column.) The two communicate through a cable that weighs less than an ounce, using Windows Explorer to drag and drop files and proprietary software to synchronize calendars and address books.
So wherever I go, I have the services of a full-featured computer and most of the facilities of my old lab. But I also have a computer with me always, even when I walk away from my desk. It's 1992 all over again, and I can't think of a better solution. Especially when the guy in 26C pushes back on the armrests.