Mobility versus productivity

In Computerworld's Demise of the Desktop feature that ran today, I mention how laptops are increasingly moving into the hands of developers and engineers who would never have used them before. In most cases those are supplemental devices, not replacements.  

While the performance gap between laptops and desktops has closed a bit over the past few years, laptops are always going to be one step behind workstations in terms of raw power. High-powered components are simply limited by the tiny space and thermal envelope afforded by laptops.

I asked Dell vice president Tim Mattox about that while reporting this story. “We don’t think [laptops] will cannibalize the desktop market on the workstation side,” he says. Giving the workstation user a notebook in addition to a desktop sounds expensive, but Mattox points out that the people who use high-powered workstations also tend to cost the most per hour. Increasingly, he says, Dell’s corporate customers don’t hesitate to buy these users a secondary laptop if it means improving productivity.

"The more highly paid someone is, the more obvious the benefit is of squeezing a few more hours of productive work out of a person. It's that concept that’s rippling into other areas," he adds.

This theme of "squeezing" more hours out of workers came up a few times as this story came together. Using technology to increase productivity is good thing, but in some cases productivity wasn’t increasing – employees were simply expected to work more hours.

That win-lose scenario lead to an earlier blog entry on whether mobile technology is liberating workers or enslaving them (see Laptops are extending corporate servitude).

In manufacturing, where global competition is intense, putting in more time can be seen as a necessary competitive response - and a way to save your job. But working longer hours isn’t necessarily working smarter. There is no productivity increase. It’s a short-term fix.

Laptop technology may allow workers who have to put in those long hours anyway to work late and still be home to eat dinner and tuck the kids into bed. At Kichler Lighting, for example, engineers are required to put in an extra 10 hours a week.

But as the home/work boundary continues to blur it’s going to be harder than ever to put one’s foot down. That line will blur even further as Kichler and other companies deploy IP telephony systems that forward calls to a soft phone on employees’ laptops when they’re at home. Is mobile technology helping the American worker, or is it simply facilitating and legitimizing the intrusion of the workday into people’s personal lives? The answer, I suspect will be a little bit of both.

Related Computerworld Blogs:

Daily IT Blogwatch reaction summaries (Tuesday) (Wednesday)

Alex Scoble: The great laptop vs desktop debate - Part 1

Alex Scoble: The great laptop vs desktop debate - Part 2

Sharon Machlis: Readers weigh in on Windows-based Treo

Douglas Schweitzer: My opinion on the laptop vs. desktop debate

Douglas Schweitzer: Email mobility problems

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