Manufacturers, hear our cry: 'Make things work!'

There's an underlying theme that recurs in each of these Road Warrior columns. Well, maybe it's more than a theme. Perhaps it's closer to a quest. Or better still, a mission carried out with passionate zeal. That mission, shared by road warriors everywhere, is elegant in its simplicity: we want things to work. Specifically, we want our things to work. And we want them to work without requiring us to staple, spit, glue, jigger, jury-rig, stuff, jam, or smack them into operative condition. Is that too much to ask?

With that mission clearly in mind, I clicked open an E-mail from a reader of an earlier Road Warrior column, in which I'd recounted running out of power while on the road (" Power Brokers," 1996, No. 1). The reader (let's call him Sean F. Donnelly of Montreal, since that's his name) wrote to tell me that he has "loads of battery-driven stuff," including scanners, cameras, pagers, and computers, and that he has rigged up a "homemade gizmo to keep them alive in even the worst places."

"Finally," I thought. "Someone's come up with a universal solution to my power problems. No longer will I have to worry about lugging around cords and power packs and spare batteries and plugs and adapters." A weight--a huge weight--fell from my carry-on-bag-weary shoulders. But then I read on:

"I'm talking about battery holders from RadioShack!!!!" reader Donnelly fairly screamed. He went on to detail, in a meticulously numbered list, "how it's done":

1. For each piece of equipment, identify the voltage required to power it.
2. Determine how many regular battery cells are required, e.g., 12 V required divided by 1.5 V per cell = 8 cells (AA, C, or D).
3. Battery holders come in singles, doubles, quads, eights, etc. Figure out what combo you need. As per above, you'd need a 2 x 4 cell holder or a single 8 cell holder.
4. Solder, twist, connect a couple of alligator clips (watch +/- ).
5. Remove unit's rechargeable-battery pack, and clip to the terminals of the unit. VoilÃ!

Now, I know what you're thinking: it's rare to find someone who can so effectively use the word voilÃ when talking about battery clips. But then, it's rare to find someone willing not only to unveil the world of power to you but also to fashion a series of "Notes" covering all conditions:

• If the battery pack plugs in, you might have to skin a couple of wires.
• You could wire in a coaxial jack and plug, and make the external pack pluggable.
• If the unit has AA NiCads or whatever style, bump up the battery holder to C or D size.

Now, lest you question the Donnelly Method, consider this:

• Do you have any idea how long your unit would run on D cells? Answer: from four to eight times longer than a fully charged set of rechargeables.
• It doesn't have to be pretty. You are just trying to give the right amount of volts to your unit. The whole process is easier than it sounds.
• I have used two 6 V Duracell Alkaline Lantern Batteries to power my notebook. I think they could last about 8 million hours if required. However, they are now powering my two lanterns.
• You can put any type of externally rechargeable batteries in your external pack. Right now I'm using Rayovac Renewal Reusable Alkalines.
• You don't need a separate setup for each device. Just enough so the proper voltages and polarities are respected.
• Compare costs and flexibility: Toshiba battery pack versus Duracells.

"The moral of the story is, Get to the root of the problem and solve it in the easiest way," Donnelly concludes.

Let's get just one thing straight. Donnelly has come upon a great method that undoubtedly works and might even be cheaper and more energy efficient than the rechargeable battery pack that came with my Toshiba Satellite laptop. But the larger message behind his method is this: to get things to work, you can't rely on the vendors who sell you the battery-powered goods in the first place; you have to rely on yourself.

And that, as they say, is the rub.

Now don't get me wrong. I'd love to try the Donnelly Method. But I just can't do it. And I'm going to tell you why, in two words: the mission.

The mission, as laid out above, requires that we not fall prey to lugging around components and jury-rigging solutions to portable-computing problems. Sure, the seasoned road warrior must be resourceful while on the road and find solutions to any problems that come up. But he or she mustn't give in to the urge to fix things so they work better than the manufacturer intended them to.

If battery packs and alligator clips are a better energy source for battery-driven products, as our friend Donnelly suggests, then Toshiba and all the other manufacturers of high-quality portable battery-powered products should consider installing them themselves. Or if there's an even better solution (like a rechargeable battery that lasts longer than the time it takes to down a bratwurst sandwich at the Milwaukee airport), then the manufacturers should come up with it. It's the middle of 1997, for God's sake, and we still can't count on all fully charged laptop batteries to last as long as a cross-country flight. Why not? And why is Apple still the only manufacturer to include a slot for an extra battery in its laptops? Shouldn't they all? I mean, even the most rechargeable of batteries grows weary these days.

But I digress. The real point is that we should never give an inch when it comes to protecting the mission. The mission is sacred. We must join together and put our collective foot down when manufacturers look to us to solve their problems. I implore reader Donnelly and all the other road warriors out there to take a solemn vow never to cave in to equipment that makes more demands on them than they on it.

And while I love going through the gadgets on RadioShack's shelves as much as the next guy, the mission doesn't require that I heed Donnelly's words and "take my notebook to the RadioShack counter and have one of the nerds do it for you." In fact, the mission insists that I never, ever rely on a third party to get things to work the way they should right out of the box.

It's a simple yet brilliant rule of thumb: if your equipment doesn't work the way you need it to work, then tell the manufacturer to reconfigure it, or if that proves unsatisfactory, get your money back and find a product that does.

If all else fails, and I mean really truly fails, then get yourself two six-volt Duracell Alkaline Lantern Batteries, tear out a copy of the Donnelly Method (above), and get one of those RadioShack nerds to rig you up one of those 8-million-hour laptop numbers. Tell him Sean Donnelly of Montreal sent you.

Jeffrey L. Seglin (jeff.seglin@inc.com) is an executive editor at Inc. Sean Donnelly of Montreal is still a loyal fan of Inc. Technology. We hope.