Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Telecommuting's a lovely concept, but reality has its own wrinkles, including burning laptops

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #341 May 7, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    I'm writing this column at home, on Sunday. When I'm done, I'll send it, as an Internet mail message, to Business in Vancouver, where the editor will read it and make his magic changes. I'm telecommuting--doing work that used to be done in an office, without ever setting foot in the company's building. I'm relying on computers and telecommunications technology to keep the office and me in sync.

    It's an attractive idea, working from home and avoiding having to physically commute to work. You can reduce pollution and parking pressure on the downtown. Spend time with your kids. Companies can reduce the size of their offices as more employees work off-site.

    As with many promises of the digital age, this one's taking longer than predicted to come to pass, and when closely examined, it isn't quite so glowing as first advertised. Working at home has its benefits, but it tends to raise the amount of time spent at work. No more closing the door, getting into the car, and leaving work behind: if you're at home, you're at work. (I am, after all, writing this column on Sunday afternoon.) And can you really spend time with the kids and get any work done?

    Still, more and more employees are expected to do more and more of their work outside the traditional workplace. The Gartner Group of Stamford, Connecticut, estimates their ranks will reach 30 million Americans and 55 million worldwide by 2000. And many of these will expect to be outfitted for work by their employer , at an eye-opening cost. Cambridge, Massachusetts' Forrester Research puts the average cost to initially set up a telecommuter at about $5,500, with annual support costs of about $3,000. Other reports suggest much of the cost (as much as 35 per cent, in one report) is wasted paying for the results of frustrated workers trying to set up or repair their equipment, far from the company's traditional support.

    Statistics Canada recently experimented with telecommuting. A group of employees was set up to work from home three days a week. While they found it hard to quantify claims of increased productivity, they estimated savings of about $1,500 per employee, partly in improvement in productivity, but more through reductions in office space, employee parking and sick leave. They tried to keep expenses down by using older, surplus PCs in the home workplaces.

    Telecommuting is a popular option, at least in theory. Carlton University professor Linda Duxbury polled professional and managerial employees, and claims that 65 per cent of women and 52 per cent of men polled wanted the chance to work from home. Nearly one-fifth of the 28,000 people surveyed said that they sometimes worked at home during regular business hours, but less than one per cent were actually full-time telecommuters.

    This feeds into the increasing popularity for notebook computers--more and more businesses need portable equipment that, rather than supplementing a machine on the office desk, can replace it and go home with the employee from time to time.

    As a result, the market for portable computers has pretty much split in three--on the one hand, basic models with slower processors (486s, for example) and passive-matrix (i.e. slow and washed-out) colour screens. Good for word-processing, e-mail, and basic tasks. $3,000 or so. (There are currently very good deals on the last-generation Macintosh Powerbooks, but be aware that these machines will be unable to run Apple's next-generation Copland operating system, even with the optional PowerMac upgrade.)

    On the other hand, there are multimedia portables--heavier, but including CD-ROM, sound, and bigger screens with bright, fast, active-matrix colour. Nice for sales people wanting to impress clients on the road with a fancy presentation. $7,000 or more. Pricey, but perhaps paid off after only a few successful presentations lead to sales contracts.

    Then there's the third hand--machines aiming at completely replacing the traditional desktop. Here, users have a different set of needs again--perhaps a docking station or a port replicator at the back, allowing them to plug the portable in and connect with the network and a collection of office equipment. Users want power equivalent to the desktop machine they're leaving behind, perhaps a 90-mhz Pentium or a PowerMac, 16 megs of RAM and a large hard drive. Be prepared to pay for this--don't expect to replace that office desktop's power and features with a portable for less than $8,000.

    And watch out: being portable means more prone to breakdown, and when it happens, that expensive machine requires expensive parts, if you can find them at all. In my case, I've been using a clone 486-66 portable for the past eight months or so. But recently one morning, smoke poured out of the corners of the screen for about 10 seconds and then the screen went black. The rest of the computer's fine--it can be plugged into an external monitor, but that somewhat limits its portability. The local distributor was no help, claiming to no longer carry that model. The national distributor has not returned any of a dozen calls.

    And lest you think I got what I deserved for using a no-name brand, similar stories plagued all brands last year. Apple, for example, recalled its top-of-the-line model after a series of batteries caught on fire, including an incident at Apple's headquarters.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan