Wednesday, 27 August 2008

How not to panic when you lose your laptop...

There was an interesting post (now sadly removed) from a delegate at the Office2.0 conference which flew in the face of the current convention: a man who fears that he has lost he his laptop but loses no sleep about the data he might have lost. Okay, so losing something as valuable as a portable computer would have been no laughing matter and then there is all the hassle with filling out insurance forms, sourcing a new machine etc, but (and here is the crucial difference) no panic about the data that’s been lost with it. No fear about personal information falling into the wrong hands. No paranoia about identify theft.

The difference? This owner of this particular laptop relies on his laptop for little more than access to the internet. No data is stored on it (and in all likelihood virtually no applications either). He is a proponent of Office2.0 technology and as a result his data is all stored on secure, backed-up, safely housed, hulking great servers that can’t get left in the back of a taxi or dropped down the back of a pub sofa.

Okay, so I no it is not as black and white as that and there are plenty of potential risks to data security posed by reliance on external service providers and wireless internet connections – but all the same, perhaps in the current climate there is something to be said for moving back to a situation where the client machine is little more than a dumb terminal, devoid of stored data and therefore devoid of risk and of value to a third party. A move which Office 2.0 is perfectly placed to enable. It lets your staff wander around the country with laptops, it lets them work wherever they need and it lets them have access to the data they require - it just doesn't let them take it with them, with all the attendant risks this seems to bring...

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Hello Steve,

I've been at the Society of Archivists conference this week, and decided to use the occasion to conduct an informal Web 2.0 experiment by operating just like your hypothetical laptop-owner. All my notes were to be made using Google docs, all e-mails dealt with by Google mail or using my institution's webmail facility. And I didn't even need to worry too much about losing an expensive laptop, since I was playing with a new toy (literally - Asus 8-inch screen laptop running Linux and Open Office at £179 from Toys'R'Us!). Being broadly positive in attitude to Office 2.0 concepts, I wanted to see what it would play out like in practice.

The results were less than excellent: the promise of the concept simply wasn't adequately supported by the infrastructure available. Largely, this was a matter of wifi access, which I tried to achieve in three different locations - the train, my hotel, and at the University of York where the conference was being held. The train (National Express east coast) was fine. I couldn't get a connection in the hotel, though my machine could 'see' the wireless network - perhaps an OS or browser problem, as colleagues using laptops operating on Windows could connect? I gained access in parts of the university, but it had wireless blind spots - most crucially, in the main lecture theatre used for the conference, where the network wasn't visible at all. I therefore ended up with more of my notes stored insecurely on the hard drive than safe and sound with Google. My initial plan had been to use mobile broadband, but an investigation of G3 network coverage revealed that it only works in centres of population and along inter-city corridors where one would expect to be able to easily gain access to wireless networks in any case.

Based on this experience, your laptop user would have been unable to work securely for a significant amount of his out-of-office time, even where conditions might have been expected to be optimal (modern hotel, university campus). This is not intended to throw a dampener on the idea - working in the 'cloud' is in many ways a logically as well as technologically inevitable next step. But at the moment, some of the balloons that are supposed to raise us to the cloud are about as reliable as Richard Branson's. Mobile online working simply isn't yet supported by the infrastructure, and I'd be interested to know how long you think it will be before it becomes a realistic proposition. It's a bit like that other bugbear of mobile working - battery life. The problem doesn't lie so much with the big-picture, wow-factor stuff as with the small niggling things that seem so hard to get right.