Has it really been 25 years? That was the first thought that crossed my mind upon being told of the silver anniversary of notebook computers late last year. The second thought was my recollection of my earliest encounters with portable computers, which — as is the case with most nascent technologies — generated reactions that varied from thankful amazement when they worked to utter frustration when they did not (typically because of operator error on my part).

Certainly, in those early days, operator error was fairly common, because we did not use the notebook computers often — they were expensive, and my newspaper employer only would allow employees to check them out if there was no other option for getting a story filed in a timely manner.

Today, the situation has changed considerably. Computers that can be carried are no longer considered a luxury; instead, they are essential tools for the mobile worker and have assumed many different form factors, from laptops to smartphones.

Joe Mangano, public-safety business development manager at CDW-G, notes the stark contrast of these sleek devices compared to the first laptop developed by Compaq that was in a suitcase. More important, he notes the improved efficiencies that such devices have brought to government enterprises, allowing employees — be it an inspector or a law-enforcement official — to gather information in the field with increased accuracy by reducing the dependence on paper forms that still had to be entered on a computer.

“[Accuracy] was always a concern,” Mangano said, noting that reading handwritten notes often could prove to be challenging. “As these employees now are able to type this information in, it obviously decreases those clerical errors that can occur.”

Of course, the development of almost-ubiquitous wireless connectivity has allowed governments to streamline the process even more, allowing field employees to spend more time where they are needed most — in the field.

“Obviously, being able to move to a device that can capture information firsthand out in the field is so much quicker for them, and there’s less duplication of effort,” Mangano said. “These devices — where it be laptops or handheld devices — have the Wi-Fi capabilities, the cameras attached to them, and all these feature sets that allow the government user or first responder to make their jobs easier.”

As helpful as traditional laptops have been, Mangano said he believes user-friendly tablet devices may soon be the tool of choice for field workers in the government sector. Such devices, armed with the proper applications and appropriate connectivity, promise to help employees be more efficiently productive at a time when governments are being asked to do more with fewer resources.

There’s little doubt that mobile computing has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. It’s hard to imagine what the next 25 years will bring, but it should be fun to watch.

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