Can you imagine being a modern business traveler on a 12-hour transcontinental flight without access to a portable PC or even a tablet?
I can’t either.
And yet that’s the unpleasant reality the Trump administration has forced on some passengers who are booked on nonstop flights to the United States originating from 10 airports in eight countries in the Middle East and Africa.
According to my ZDNet colleague Zack Whittaker, the regulations “require passengers on those flight to pack any electronics larger than a phone, such as cameras, tablets and ebooks, portable DVD players, and laptops, into checked luggage.”
For most business travelers, that option is simply unacceptable, if only for the risk that a laptop will be stolen from checked baggage. For anyone who works for a large corporation, especially in sensitive industries such as defense or energy, there’s also the risk that the device will be tampered with by agents of a foreign power looking to eavesdrop or steal secrets.
(If I were forced to check a laptop in the baggage hold, I would make sure it was fully encrypted. I would also wrap it in a tamper resistant package with a unique seal that couldn’t be replaced by an intruder.)
This week, according to a report in Business Insider, Qatar Airways announced that it would offer loaner laptops to business-class passengers aboard its flights to the US starting next week. (Sorry, economy class, this offer doesn’t apply to you.)
Presumably the loaner laptops will be equipped with Microsoft Office. With a USB flash drive, that would make it possible to edit a Word document or review a PowerPoint slide deck at 37,000 feet and remain at least someone productive.
The airline is also offering free Wi-Fi to business class fliers, so web-based applications, including e-mail, are also available.
Of course, that option poses its own set of problems. There’s no guarantee that the loaner laptops are secure, nor are they guaranteed to have the software or data files that a traveler would need to be productive.
And that’s where an obscure feature of Windows 10 Enterprise edition, Windows To Go, suddenly becomes extremely interesting.
Microsoft introduced Windows To Go five years ago, at the same time as Windows 8. It allows an IT department to install a fully encrypted copy of Windows onto a specially formatted USB flash drive along with any necessary data files.
I have a couple of Windows To Go-compatible drives in my office and have built fully functional portable Windows desktops on them, using Windows 10 Enterprise. It’s not particularly difficult. (For details, see this Microsoft whitepaper, Creating a Portable Windows 10 Environment with Windows To Go.)
A Windows To Go drive runs on any PC that’s compatible with Windows 7 or later, booting up independently of the host operating system and safely isolated from any potentially malicious software or hardware on that PC.
When you’ve finished working, you exit the Windows To Go session, remove the flash drive, and shut down the host PC, leaving literally no trace of your work or your data files behind.
That same Windows To Go device could also be used in a hotel business center or even an Internet café, on a PC that would otherwise be horribly insecure.
What options are available for economy class customers, or those traveling on airlines that don’t have a laptop loaner program?
One option is to carry a mobile phone with a large enough screen to edit documents on but not so large that security officials would consider it a tablet. Couple that phablet with a portable keyboard such as the Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard or a similar alternative from Logitech and other third parties, add the right Office Mobile apps, and you have an underpowered but still effective PC alternative.
Microsoft also makes a Universal Foldable Keyboard that can do the same job in a smaller, more portable package. I would choose the slightly larger device shown here, however, because it flips open to reveal a slot designed to hold a phone or tablet at the correct orientation.
I’ve used the Bluetooth-powered Universal Mobile Keyboard with various tablets but never with a phablet, so I can’t personally testify to its effectiveness in this scenario. But the device is specifically designed to work with iOS and Android devices, so an iPhone 7 Plus, or a Google Pixel XL or similarly sized Android device from a third party like Samsung or LG should work.
What’s odd to me is that all of these scenarios seemed forced and unnecessary when I tested them a few years ago. Today, thanks to new political realities, they seem depressingly relevant.