Opportunities in Adversity

A Ban on Large Devices in Cabins May Be a Boon for Some Firms

In yesterday’s Daily Insight, my colleagues Nick McQuire and Ben Wood shared their thoughts on a potential ban on laptops and other large-screened devices in the cabins of aircraft flying to the US from Europe. They mentioned a few potential solutions, and the piece prompted me to think further about how technology could solve some of the problems posed to business travellers by such a ban.

Using technology to overcome hurdles to business travel or simply to cut cost is not a new thing. In the wake of restrictions imposed since the 9/11 attacks and in response to natural disasters like tsunami and volcanic eruptions, companies have looked for ways to eradicate the need for employees to get on a plane.

In this case, although travel is not obstructed, travellers are required to check in their laptops, tablets and large phones. A company might simply choose to ban mid- and low-level personnel from travelling on business, because these employees wouldn’t qualify for special treatment by airlines, such as the free use of on-board devices offered by some Middle Eastern airlines to premium flyers. In some cases, the risk of losing a laptop with sensitive information in checked luggage could simply be too high for some companies and they may decide to ban travel with laptops.

Although any ban would be a huge inconvenience to many, it presents a golden opportunity for technology companies to offer new waves of almost-in-the-same place solutions and Web-based collaboration tools. Adoption of technology like HP’s Halo Telepresence videoconferencing has proven to cut business travel: many people would prefer a 3 AM videoconference than to fly from London to Beijing for a single meeting. But in addition to videoconferencing, which is not new, there are some possibilities for modern solutions, including augmented and mixed reality.

For example, Microsoft’s HoloLens in combination with Skype could be able to provide a reasonable alternative to face-to-face meetings. The business case is quite clear: a global company could equip meeting rooms with a few HoloLens devices in each of its main offices around the world, and expect to see a return on its investment within a short time thanks to savings from reduced business travel. Furthermore, such solutions could bring in the benefit of higher job satisfaction for employees who are typically required to travel and as a result of new technology can spend less time away from their homes.

Given the trend toward as-a-service business models, hardware and associated telepresence services could be bundled as a service and offered to companies with more moderate conferencing needs.

Restrictions on devices when travelling could also provide a boost to remote working solutions in which absolutely all information resides in the cloud, including applications and data. If users can get access to a PC they can log in and work as though they were in their base office, whether in a remote office or travelling elsewhere.

For travellers without access to a remote office, I can envisage a scenario in which Dell, HP or Lenovo offer laptops-as-a-service in hundreds of business locations. Travellers arrive, pick up a laptop from the airport, just like a rental car, use it for their trip with secure cloud-based access to company information and applications, and drop it off on departure.

Of course, security (of the cyber kind) would be a challenge in this scenario. But the opportunities presented by the scale of potential demand for laptops-as-a-service may add impetus to efforts to offer such a service. The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority reported that in the 12 months to the end of March 2016, more than 22 million passengers flew from the UK to North America. Not all were business travellers, but there’s still a substantial audience for innovative solutions to a device ban, especially if, as we predict, any ban extends into a global restriction.