How to Deal With the Travel Ban on Laptops and Tablets

On March 21st, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that any personal electronics larger than a smartphone cannot be carried in the passenger cabin on US-bound flights originating from Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The airlines affected, all based in the Middle East, have 96 hours to implement the appropriate changes to ensure that non-compliant electronic devices are carried only in checked, not carry-on, luggage. The UK followed suit, implementing essentially the same policy for flights to the UK originating from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The reasons for the new policy by the US and British governments were not made entirely clear, but the US raid on Al-Qaeda forces in Yemen in January of this year apparently yielded intelligence about the terrorist organization’s development of “battery bombs” that could be large enough to destroy a commercial aircraft. Also cited were the destruction of a Russian A321 over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015, and a bomb blast aboard a Somali A321 shortly after it left Mogadishu in February 2016, either or both of which may have been the target of battery bombs or similar devices.

While the ban on personal electronics in carry-on luggage affects only direct flights to the US and the UK from the countries noted above, it’s possible that the ban may be extended to other countries and maybe even to domestic flights in the US, UK and elsewhere.

If you rely on your laptop and/or tablet when traveling, what would you do if the ban suddenly applied to your next trip, as it already has for thousands of travelers? Here are some options:

  • The obvious (and worst) option is to travel with your laptop and tablet in checked luggage. While the rate of lost luggage, at least in the US, is relatively low at 3.09 bags per 1,000 passengers, a dramatic increase in number of laptops and tablets flying in checked luggage might motivate some baggage handlers to help themselves to the suddenly more valuable cargo. Even in the absence of theft, there is a significant risk that rough handling of luggage could damage the devices.
  • Another option is to work only from your smartphone. That will work for things like checking email and making presentations, but for writing, creating presentations or working with spreadsheets, that’s not a viable option.
  • A better option is to use a Windows to Go drive that will allow you to plug this USB device into any Windows-based computer or a Mac and use the computer only as a host. These bootable devices can be imaged with corporate applications and data, they store data only on the USB device leaving nothing on the host, and some are hardware-encrypted, providing a highly secure platform for storing data. Using a Windows to Go drive, a traveler could take with them an outdated Windows 7 or Windows 8 laptop that wouldn’t cause much angst if it was stolen, or they could borrow someone’s laptop at their destination.

There are a number of vendors that offer Windows to Go devices, including Kingston, Spyrus, Kanguru and Super*Talent. These devices offer a robust experience that is more or less indistinguishable from a native PC experience, they’re fairly inexpensive, and they are not likely to be the subject of a ban of the type discussed above. If you must have access to a laptop or tablet when traveling, Windows to Go drives should be an option you should evaluate sooner rather than later.


Microsoft vs. Google vs. IBM

While there are a large number of cloud-based communication and collaboration solutions available, the “Big Three” in cloud-based communication and collaboration today are Microsoft Office 365, Google G Suite and IBM Connections Cloud (which includes a very good email solution called IBM Verse). I won’t go into what you get with each offering, but you can check out the various components, features and capabilities at the following links for Office 365, G Suite and Connections Cloud.

All of these offerings include robust email, instant messaging, document collaboration, file sharing and other tools, as well as lots of storage. All of these solutions are reasonably priced, although Microsoft’s high end plans are significantly more expensive than the other two (but they also include more capabilities). Microsoft’s solutions require the least disruption to the way that most information workers work, since the vast majority already use the Office suite of Word, Excel and PowerPoint; and Office 365, from a desktop productivity standpoint, is nothing more than a switch from purchasing a perpetual license for these applications to renting them in perpetuity.

From a long-term perspective, however, particularly for enterprise customers, IBM’s solution should be the subject of most decision makers’ serious consideration because of Watson Workspace. Watson, the “computer” that trounced Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jeopardy back in 2011, uses cognitive capabilities to analyze social interactions among information workers. Watson is currently being used for cancer research, tax analysis and other data-intensive applications, but Watson Workspace is specifically focused on using these cognitive capabilities in the workplace. The goal of Watson Workspace is to help workers manage information overload, present the right data at the right time, and otherwise streamline work processes with the goal of making people more efficient. Microsoft and Google have analytics and other capabilities that are focused on similar aims, but neither of these vendors have capabilities that compares to Watson at this point. In short, Watson has the potential to revolutionize the way that people work with one another.

The problem for IBM, however, is two-fold:

  • First, IBM is generally more bureaucratic than either of their key competitors and has a more difficult time moving products from the conceptual stage into stuff that people can actually deploy.
  • Second, Microsoft and Google make it easy to buy Office 365 and G Suite, respectively. IBM does not.

As a test of the latter point, I had one of our researchers run a test to see how long it would take to set up an account in Office 365, G Suite and IBM Verse. She started on a weekday afternoon and found that it took six minutes to complete setting up an Office 365 account, four minutes to set up an account in G Suite — and 31 minutes to set up an account in Verse.

Now admittedly, IBM is not really focused on the single user market to nearly the same extent as Microsoft and Google. But the difficulty and length of time associated with setting up an account are indicative of IBM’s need to make its account acquisition process a bit easier and more transparent. This one-off market can result in the deployment of perhaps a few million seats, a market that just about any communications and collaboration vendor should pursue for its own sake, but also for the potential impact it could have on making these tools more familiar in the enterprise space.

In short, IBM’s communication and collaboration solutions are the best of the Big Three, but also the most difficult to acquire.