Airlines have recently stopped bad mouthing the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 on every flight because all of those devices, which were prone to catching fire, appeared to be out of the market. Then Samsung, in its infinite desire to do stupid things, started to sell refurbished Note 7s. I expect that won’t end well. The laptop industry has had exploding battery issues in the past, as well. But an even bigger issue is resulting in laptops being banned on some planes.
That issue is the belief that terrorists are using captured TSA scanning machines to create bombs that could be brought onto planes inside electronics undetected. This problem could make the Samsung smartphone and earlier laptop battery fires seem trivial by comparison because it could result a general ban on all large battery-powered devices, which would include laptops and their likely replacements, tablets. Right now, you may put these devices in checked baggage, though some have pointed out that this move isn’t wise. And only flights from certain countries are included in the ban currently, but that can certainly change at any time.
I think we should take this situation as a threat to the electronics industry and IT departments.
Redesigning Laptops, Tablets, Etc.
If the industry doesn’t want to see laptops (or anything else that uses batteries) banned from planes, it needs to develop a reliable (hard to compromise) method where the internal components can be rapidly assured or where the battery, which remains the most likely component in a laptop to explode and the most likely component to be turned into an explosive, is redesigned so it is no longer viable as either.
Suddenly, fuel cells that run on alcohol could be the fix, where the tank is checked to assure it’s empty when going through security and the airport stores sell approved fuel. An alternative would be to allow the batteries to be removed before security and standardized replacement batteries rentable at airports or a more pervasive power source supplied on planes. You could rent a battery at the arrival airport and then return it at the end of your trip for those times when you are away from home.
Finally, though this would take time, you could implement a battery verification system and standard battery check port. The device would then be tested by TSA for load to make sure it was a battery and, if it fell out of spec, would undergo more detailed testing to assure that it wasn’t a bomb.
The critical thing is to have the planning for this done before one of these goes up on a plane and kills people, because governments tend to overreact and the result could be a complete ban of laptops and anything with large batteries on all airlines.
Anticipating a Total Laptop Travel Ban
I think the chance of the industry stepping up to this problem before one of these things goes up is slim to none. There are actually better odds that terrorists will simply come up with better ways to bring explosives on a plane than anyone moving in a timely manner to change the architecture of a laptop, or any other of the listed devices, to prevent an attack. This suggests the odds are reasonably good that we have a full laptop ban in our futures. And, once one of these things goes up, the idea of putting them into luggage because that is somehow safer, will be acknowledged as colossally stupid.
We do have several workarounds. One is to take another look at “Windows to Go,” a feature of Windows 8 (it has been updated in Windows 10), that allows you to basically put the entire user image for a laptop on a USB stick (could eventually be an Intel Optane drive tied to a Thunderbolt port), which the user would carry. Then they would have a rented laptop available to them at their destination with controls to make sure the files remained on the USB stick.
Of course, this could also make the idea of putting the laptop image in the cloud more attractive, and one of the most popular uses of hyperconverged systems is PC virtualization at the moment. This could become a powerful reason to look at and deploy this solution so that regardless of where the employee was, or what hardware they had, they could get access to their tools and unique desktop.
Wrapping Up: Probability of a General Laptop Ban Is High
Back when I used to be asked to set probabilities, I’d have put the likelihood of a full laptop ban at .4 to .6. The fact that we already have a limited ban before an actual event increases the likelihood of an overreaching response if an explosion results. In the end, the technology industry and IT need to begin thinking of what they will do to correct this exposure and plan for the outcome.
Of course, maybe the best solution is to revisit videoconferencing and just stay out of airplanes. Then no one has to take the risk of blowing up and all of this largely becomes someone else’s problem. I’m really getting tired of flying, so you can guess what my favored solution is.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+