Two years ago I wrote a column called "How to leave your laptop behind
," in which I championed various cool technologies I was using at the time to work productively even when I didn't have my laptop with me. It's time for me to confess: Shortly after I wrote that column, I went back to lugging my laptop home more and more frequently. Within a month I was taking it home every night. And I still take it with me on every business trip. In fact, I wear out a laptop per year on average, and I'm afraid my current machine may be on its last legs
You'd think that in these two intervening years, technology and the Web would have advanced enough that the trend would be the other way, but they haven't. It should be easier for me to leave my laptop behind than to take it with me, but it's not. That said, there are some technologies available today that make a laptop dispensable. I'll go over my favorites in a minute. But working against these tools are social and security trends that make it professional suicide to leave the home or office without one of today's little supercomputers tucked under your arm. Technologies that do work
For occasional access to a personal computer from a remote machine, I recommend remote control software
. I use LogMeIn
, which has an excellent free service. Whenever I need access to a program on my home PC that's not also on my work system, it's a lifesaver. I've also used the similar paid service, GoToMyPC
, and it works well, but LogMeIn does everything I need, and it's free.
However, I find that I rarely need this remote access. Instead, I've become addicted to FolderShare
, a service that synchronizes data on multiple machines. I run it on my home and work machines, mostly as a backup solution for critical directories--everything that matters to me is synchronized via FolderShare, so if one machine bites the dust, I'll have a current backup on the other.
But I've also come to rely on FolderShare for day-to-day tasks. Here's one way I've found myself using the application: Although I take my laptop home every night, if I have files to work on (in Word, PowerPoint, or Excel, mostly), I open them up on my home computer, which is faster and has a bigger screen and keyboard. Then when I save them, I know they'll get replicated to my laptop for use at work or on the road. For access to work files, I could actually leave my laptop in its dock at work, except the one type of file I can't reliably synchronize is Outlook's offline message stores, PST files. For that reason, I'm still taking my laptop home each night. (FolderShare was acquired by Microsoft last year.)
I've also become a big fan of the bookmarking site Del.icio.us
. Since I use two computers and I use both Firefox and Internet Explorer on both of them, it's become pointless for me to store bookmarks in local Favorites directories. Instead, I store everything to Del.icio.us and can access it from any one of the browsers and computers I use. Also, Del.icio.us's tag-based organization system is superior to the hierarchical directory structure imposed by the browsers' bookmarking systems. (Del.icio.us was acquired by Yahoo last year.)
Another online service I've become accustomed to is the RSS reader Rojo
. I still like the Outlook-based newsreader NewsGator
, but it is easier to keep a directory of feeds updated on a central server than it is to keep everything synced up in local copies of Outlook. While NewsGator does a good job of synchronizing RSS subscriptions between multiple copies of Outlook and its own Web-based newsreader service, I've found the Web-based Rojo easier to manage. (Rojo has not yet been acquired.) And yet...
The products I mentioned above make it easier to borrow another computer and use it like it's my own. But I rarely do that anymore. I do not trust cafe or kiosk computers to be secure for anything more than browsing public Web sites--I will not access a business-critical resource, Web-based e-mail, or anything that requires personal identity or a password from a public computer. And borrowing a trusted friend or coworker's machine is like borrowing their toothbrush: it's creepy. At least that's how I feel when somebody sits down at one of my PCs to use it.
Moreover, I can't afford to rely on the availability of other computers, even if there are tools that could turn them into doppelgängers of my own. When I sit down in a meeting or at a conference, I often need a screen and a keyboard in front of me to take notes or to blog. While it used to be that I could go to a trade show and spend my time meeting with people and collecting ideas, these days I need to post my commentary to the Web as it happens. I'm not saying that's good, but that's the way things work today.
The upshot is that I'm no longer looking for products that let me turn an alien machine into one of my own. Instead, I'm on the prowl for technologies that make it easy for me to make any one of my own computers into an extension of my own private work space--my collection of data files, media, e-mail, and tools. I believe this is the best way to work today. Borrowing machines here and there may be appropriate for people who don't work very hard, but for those of us trying to compete in an always-on world, waiting in line for a computer won't cut it, and not carrying your own computing power with you is a big mistake. Have you found a way to work without having your own computer with you all the time? Talk back to me.