Six Weeks of MacBook Air use in a Wintel Corporate World

My trusty ThinkPad X301 running Windows 7 Enterprise was dying. It wouldn’t shut down. It had a hard time starting up. It might Blue Screen of Death (BSoD) while reading email or editing documents. It might decide to not charge either of the two batteries in the case. It might forget that it has a wifi and bluetooth adaptor.

I handed it off to the appropriate internal technical support team. Unfortunately the loaner laptops were all in use. I had three options.

  1. Use my own laptop until my work laptop was fixed
  2. Demand a new laptop without knowing if my current laptop is fixable
  3. Go without a laptop until mine is fixed

Option 3 doesn’t work. I travel too much to go without a laptop. Mobile devices are a gray area, but I shudder to think about editing my budget spreadsheets in an iPad.

Option 2 is within the realm of possibility, but I don’t know what I would take to replace my X301. It doesn’t have the biggest RAM footprint or a current CPU or even competitive graphics. It does have a good display and good battery life and it is light. I’m not due for another laptop until 2013. The longer I can wait the better the hardware will be.

Option 1 is workable. There is only one problem: my laptop is an Apple MacBook Air (late 2011).

My European colleagues can use Apple products. My Asia Pacific colleagues can as well. In the Americas it is a different story. I’ve written about this before.

Nevertheless, things came to a head. I could adhere to the unwritten policy or I could keep working. I chose the latter.

So far the only folks that even care are those in my organisation that would like an Apple option and our VP. I hung a sign on my laptop while using it that told folks: “Don’t Get Your Hopes Up: This is Temporary” for the VP’s benefit. She laughed but also asked how it was working for me.

I told her it’s working well.

The thing is, it’s actually working better than I expected. Here’s why and how.

First, I have a corporate copy of Windows 7 x64 Enterprise running in a Parallels 7 Desktop session. It is on the Active Directory (AD) domain. All of my business applications, even those I could run in OS X, run in the VM. I use Coherence mode to better integrate the Windows apps. It works really well for me.

For the network I carry a USB to 100MB Ethernet adaptor. I assign it to the VM only and use guest wireless access for the MBA. If physical ethernet isn’t available I will fire up a VPN from the VM guest to get it on-line. I can use a USB wireless adaptor as well if I want.

As my team manages the VPN environment, it is a good idea for me to drink our own champagne (as it were). As the head of IT security, the separation of work from personal in a functional way is a powerful example.

I expanded my environment with an Ubuntu guest VM for some GNU and F/OSS tools not available for native Windows for work. I added some of the tools in the MBA via MacPorts just in case.

The other stuff? Being on the domain means links I open in the email client open in IE 9. I can view and edit MS Visio and Project files that can’t be opened in OS X without expensive third-party software using software licenses already assigned to me. I can be permissive and allow opening of files in either environment. I can be restrictive and allow opening files only in one environment.

From the user experience angle, after logging into the VM guest I don’t think much about it. It works really well.