In response to my Tales from the Software Twilight Zone article
last month, wherein I mentioned the purchase of my new laptop, one reader
asks, ďAre you free from the cubicle culture? Really?Ē I canít answer
that question with an unequivocal ďNo.Ē Last month, I spent three weeks
in a tiny cubicle situated in a windowless bomb shelter writing a training
manual. The upside is that when the three weeks were up, I got to walk
out of there and return to my comfortable home (or anywhere) office.
Working my next contract, I was able to baby sit my two grandkids, producing
while they were sleeping. I visited my dad and worked while he and my husband
watched a football game. I am writing this article at my dadís house right
now. I attended a High Growth Stock Investing software usersí meeting and
continued updates to their User Guide during the presentations.
Fifty percent of my readers just told themselves that a laptop is something
only a workaholic could love. The other half view a laptop as I do: as
a ticket to freedom. If you are still reading, you belong to the latter
half, so Iíll give examples.
I enjoy my work. What I donít enjoy is working till 3 AM or getting
up at 5 to meet a deadline. Avoiding such odd hours, I can still, if needed
put in the occasional sixty hour week and see my family, too.
Twenty years ago I started my love affair with ďportableĒ computers,
lusting after a KayPro II. (You can see one now in the window at the Alamo
PC Resource center.) The Kaypro retailed at about three grand, which I
couldnít afford. That didnít matter, since I didnít have a clue as to how
to use it. Lacking cash for a computer I bought every computer book or
magazine I could find. It was another two years before I touched the real
By 1984, machines with the DOS operating system had taken off in the
business world and I bought a ďportableĒ IBM PC. My PC had a seven inch
inboard monochrome yellow screen, 64 kilobytes of memory, two 360K floppy
drives, a 4.77 megahertz Intel 8088 processor, and a 25 pin serial port.
The price: 2500 bucks. We had to pay fifty extra to install a parallel
port for a printer. The printer cost about $400. The printer cable was
another $25. And my ďportableĒ computer weighed 33 pounds.
We pieced together a software library that included DBase II, Wordstar,
Lotus 123 and Flight Simulator. The last item, surprisingly, was the only
Microsoft product outside the DOS operating system.
Since my primary task was learning how to use a computer, I did see
a rise in productivity. When the kids were small and my husbandís parents
were alive, we traveled to his tiny home town in east Texas to spend one
weekend a month. The kids and I loved the visits, but after about 24 hours
(when sports events dominated the only TV set,) I ran out of things to
do, besides eat.
Since I had a part time job lecturing for Weight Watchers, it was important
that I find something more constructive to do. I set up a card table in
the guest room and lugged out my PC. I learned to simulate an aircraft
takeoff and fly around a bit, if not land safely. I wrote letters to my
friends. Without the DOS boot disk, my PC would boot up into the BASIC
programming language, so I learned to write code and develop rudimentary
programming logic. I learned that I never wanted to be without a PC again.
In the next 18 years we purchased nine computers including five laptops.
We also got two Palm devices, countless peripherals and enough network
equipment to attach three computers at a time to the Internet and to each
other. In those years, Iíve learned that portability equals productivity,
and the more portable, the more productive. For this reason, we recently
purchased for my daughter and me almost identical Dell Inspiron 8200 laptops.
Both laptops came with a built-in CD Burner/DVD Player combination.
During a long flight, I can plug in my earphones and watch Gladiator
on a generously sized screen. After Gladiator, if I have time, I
can listen to music on my hard drive or from CDs. When I get to my hotel
room, I can get out my Tíai Chi DVD for some well-needed exercise and relaxation.
These devices also let us use cheap CDs to burn backups of daily work when
weíre not attached to a network.
Even on a long flight, battery power is not a problem. I ordered an
extra battery and replaced the floppy drive with the extra battery. The
batteries and power saving features manage six or seven hours of unplugged
power. Even when my laptop is plugged in, I have reason to give thanks
for the batteries. The occasional power blip or failure doesnít phase a
laptop, as battery power takes over where AC leaves off. Lost work, and
worse yet, lost ideas never need hamper my productivity.
If itís dark, I can use the tiny Targus laptop light that plugs into
my USB port. Since it doesnít require a plug, I can use it anywhere. It
illuminates the keyboard and serves as a spotlight for anything else I
may need to see. I could charge and hotsync my Palm M130, but I would have
to unplug either the external (infrared) mouse or the light, since I have
only two USB ports. The upside of USB, in addition to the power it supplies
to peripheral devices, is how easy it is to connect and remove the devices.
If I had some manual dexterity, I could be more productive by leaving
the mouse in my carry all and using the inboard mouse. This mouse has two
sets of buttons, one below the space bar and another set at the edge between
the sizable palm rests.
If I have a long wait in an airport, I can pull out the locking cable,
another extra purchase, that hooks into the hole in the computerís right
side. Wrapping the lock around a chair arm or desk leg and spinning the
combination makes my laptop secure enough for me to run get a soda or pack
of gum. It also makes me less jittery when I take it to a client site.
I bought both machines to be 802.11b (Wi-Fi) ready. We havenít used
this feature yet because most public locations require a membership, and
we wonít be able to install a wireless hub at home until after the holidays,
but I still look forward to of hooking into the Internet in Starbucks,
an Airport or even on a plane.
Both laptops came with a built-in Ethernet networking port, a welcome
change from the cranky PCMCIA cards and proprietary cable converters I
once used. The downside is that the port is on the left side, about where
you would put the mouse. Like most QA people and help system developers,
Iím a left-side mouser (leaving my right hand free to take notes.) The
cable is pretty resilient, but its presence still makes me a bit nervous.
Even if I never traveled or spent time at a client site, my laptop would
be a useful investment. The work of a technical writer is most productive
when one has access to two computers: one to run the application and one
to write the documentation. The ability to freeze an application program
and document a message, menu item or action makes documentation faster
and more accurate. If one computer is a laptop it leaves enough desk space
for a printer and printed material or notes.
One of my primary reasons for getting a laptop is my health. I am prone
to migraine headaches and have age-related macular degeneration in one
eye, both of which are aggravated by standard desktop monitors. Purchasing
a new computer leaves me with two choices: buy a laptop or buy a desktop
with an expensive flat panel monitor. The six hundred bucks I didnít have
to spend for a flat panel monitor gave me a good bit of cash to sink into
the best laptop I could find.
Finally, because of their size, and perhaps their cost as well, laptops
tend to be well-thought out. Some do have cramped keyboards, but mine is
quite comfortable due to the large, slightly raised palm rests. I have
two buttons at the top of my keyboard that I can program to open my two
most frequently used programs. I have keyed them to Outlook Express and
the Palm Desktop. Add this to the fact that a laptop is much quieter than
a desktop, and you have a machine for which you make few sacrifices and
gain many advantages.