WHEN I visited the University of Michigan's large graduate library in Ann Arbor, Mich., two months ago, I learned two things. Portable computers are still rare on campus. Undoing velcro tabs on a computer bag is noisy.
My laptop didn't draw as many stares as the velcro. No one else in that large room was using a portable computer.
So imagine my surprise when, during the Christmas break, I found two students pecking away at Compaq notebook computers at the Columbia Business School library in New York City. As of Jan. 1, the graduate business school requires all new students to have a portable computer. That's a first, as far as I know.
Portable computing used to mean lugging around a 26-pound behemoth. Then technology improved and portable meant a 13-pound laptop. Now, only a notebook seven pounds or less fills the bill. Soon, an even lighter machine - the subnotebook - will take over. (Don't you love that name!)
If downsizing desktop computers has defined portability until now, the definition may be about to change radically. Maybe.
The main reason Columbia Business School adopted portables is its new curriculum. The new courses emphasize computer access in the classroom. In a few years, students will come to class, plug their computers into the special jack by their desks, and access not only the files on their own hard disk but also all the resources available on the school's network.
James Haggard, executive director of the project, envisions students doing in-class modeling of Wall Street activity and sending and receiving homework electronically.
The labs, the library, and a few lounges are already hooked up. Two classrooms will come on line this month. A year from now, all classrooms with fixed furniture will be hooked up. Haggard hasn't figured out how he wants to wire classrooms with movable desks.
Despite Columbia's aggressive move into portable computing, its vision remains conservative. Haggard doesn't think the computers will change the classroom much. He still envisions students and professors coming to class. More than 300 students have voluntarily bought the Compaq notebook computers that the school is offering at a discount. But Haggard has not yet decided how students will dial into the network from their homes.
Portable computing, in other words, replaces desktop machines but doesn't really free the user to do something fundamentally different.
A more radical view comes from David Larson, vice president of sales and marketing at a new software company called Notable Technologies. He thinks desktops will integrate high-quality video, sound, and graphics, while notebooks will evolve into a different kind of machine.
The next wave of portables will be smaller, communications-ready, and able to accept handwriting input, he says. Executives will be able to take notes and retrieve information no matter where they are.
"The concept of the office is, I think, sort of obsolete," Mr. Larson says. Offices will be for people who input and manage data. Users will be free to roam.
Notable Technologies already has five products for the roamers. Among them: a soon-to-ship telecommunications package and a program called Shared Whiteboard that lets two or more users edit the same document or drawing even if they're hundreds of miles apart. Larson predicts that the hardware to use this software will be widely available within two years.
The future of the office - and the classroom - isn't clear yet. Users haven't determined how they'll use the new devices.
The computer-using students in Columbia's library have more immediate concerns. Bin Zhu wants more printers attached to the network. Jonathan Stuart complains of frequent network crashes, limited choices of software, and shoddy workmanship on his Compaq portable.
"The school is tackling this subject head on," he says, approvingly. But "for $2,000, I didn't expect bits [of the portable] to start falling off after three months."
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