Figuring out the balance between accessibility and reliability can be a tough job. For example, right now I'm preparing to go out of town for a couple of weeks. I'm taking the presentations I'm giving and some other work with me, which means making sure that I've got all my working files on my laptop—not an impossible task, but inconvenient. (I'm not running Windows 2000 on the laptop.)

One solution might leap to mind for anyone reading this column: Sign up with an application service provider (ASP) that offers productivity applications through the network. I wouldn't be able to work on the plane (unless I could copy files to the laptop from the ASP's data center while connected), but I could get to all files, data, and applications that I needed from an Internet connection, either while in the terminal or in my hotel room. This scenario isn't quite as rosy as one in which the airport and hotel have kiosks so I can log in from the terminal or my room and avoid lugging around the laptop entirely, but it looks pretty good in terms of flexibility.

The trouble is, such a solution depends on the Internet. Private lines offer a more secure and potentially more reliable route to your ASP. A private line has a lot less path redundancy than the Internet does, but it also has a lot fewer bored teenagers willing and able to intentionally cause traffic problems. However, unless you're a character in a science-fiction movie, you can't take a private T1 connection with you wherever you go. VPNs protect your connection from interception and provide more flexibility of location. But VPNs still use the same paths as the rest of the Internet, so they're vulnerable to the same traffic problems. They don't protect you from network outages that Denial of Service (DoS) attacks or plain old "too much traffic" (which wouldn't be unlikely in a shared environment such as a hotel or an airport) cause, so online access to my applications and files could still be problematic. Make it too problematic, and I'm back to loading files onto the laptop before I go on a trip so I can get to them without having to worry about slow connect times.

Much market research has gone into the potential power of ASPs in the coming decade. All the reports I've seen agree that ASPs are due to take off as an economic force some time over the next 3 or 4 years. How well will those ASPs work for mobile customers? Is it reasonable to use the Internet for business-critical data on a large scale? Or are we better off with private lines that protect us from intentional or accidental outages because of traffic problems?