Netbooks in the business: Do they make sense?

For field forces, the answer is clearly yes. For other users, the fit is less clear

With some of the most recognized names in the high-tech industry -- Intel, Arm, Microsoft, Linux, Acer, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, and many more -- hyping netbooks as the next big thing, InfoWorld decided to take a look at a category whose exact definition is still in flux to see how and where they fit into business usage.

When it comes to deciding if your IT department should support netbooks, IT must answer two critical questions.

[ Considering a netbook? See which netbooks InfoWorld Test Center rates as the best. | Looking for netbook productivity software? Check out these Office alternatives. ]

First, can netbooks play a unique role better than any other device you have? In other words, are they a category distinct from laptops at the high-performance and usability end, while standing apart from handhelds at the lower range in performance and usability?

Second, although netbooks make a great first impression as practical and inexpensive devices, IT must also consider how mobile devices are used at the street level within their own organization. Do they fit into the overall business IT strategy? Do they add to or detract from the total cost of ownership?

Just a year ago, netbook configurations were typically set to 512MB of RAM, 2GB to 4GB of flash storage, and less powerful microprocessors that limited what apps could run on them. They also tended to have small screens and keyboards. Almost all of them ran some flavor of the Linux operating system.

Today, netbooks are smaller than a sheet of paper, no thicker than an inch, and weigh 1.5 to 3 pounds, depending on whether you opt for a three-, four-, or six-cell battery. Many come with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, a 160MB hard drive, 1GB of memory, and a screen size between 8 and 12 inches. (Why these dimensions? Because Microsoft has an agreement with netbook makers that the size of the screen can be no bigger than 12 inches in return for keeping Windows XP available to them.) Netbooks come loaded with either Linux or Windows XP, and when it ships, Windows 7 will also run on netbooks, unlike Vista. The cost is typically around $300 to $350, depending on the configuration.

A no-brainer: Field service usage for netbooks
Netbooks make the perfect fit for many field service operations -- transportation and logistics, repair and servicing, surveying, even medical care -- thanks to their small size, low price, and the fact you can create or run custom applications quickly and cheaply because they use standard desktop operating systems (unlike handhelds).

"Good enough to use and cheap enough to lose" is what early techies used to say about RadioShack's TRS- 80, aka the Trash 80, in the 1980s -- the first "netbook." The same can apply to most netbooks today. Whether a unit is stolen out of truck because the driver forgot to lock the door or it's dropped onto the pavement, a company is more likely to have spares in the closet rather than paying for fancy overnight delivery replacement services.

The small size adds other advantages, notes Ryan Meyer, a field service business owner of a PC maintenance company. His employees have found the diminutive dimension to be a life-saver when they are stuck behind a server cabinet, cramped up behind their knees, and running diagnostics or checking out serial and model numbers. "You just pull them back there with you, and the long battery life is helpful, too," Meyer says.

Perhaps the least recognized benefit is found in the availability of standard operating systems rather than the proprietary OSes used in many field service handheld devices, notes Eric Openshaw, U.S. technology leader at the IT consultancy Deloitte: "They are easier to maintain, upgrade, and customize."

Familiarity with Windows or Linux means less of a learning curve for both IT and users. Plus, standardizing the hardware and the OS translates to lower development costs and faster turnaround time whether the IT department is doing the work in-house or paying a consultancy or vendor for customized application development.

Plus, the use of common OSes makes it easy for application developers to support netbooks in a big way, which should drive the netbook further and faster into business, especially for companies like UPS, says Openshaw.

Contrast that to a handheld device's requirements, notes Ron Purdhomme, vice president of practice development for inCode, a telecommunications consultancy. It takes a fair amount of coding and middleware to run a Motorola Symbol device (common in many field forces), and the same is true for Windows Mobile development.

Netbook as a basic productivity tool
If the stars line up correctly, there's another area where netbooks may earn a place in business: as basic systems for the many employees who don't work on intense spreadsheets or complex documents, use a fraction of Microsoft Office's capabilities, and spend as much time on e-mail and Web apps as anything else.

Most netbooks have three standard USB ports, an Ethernet port, and a PC card slot, and they take the same standard wireless cards to connect to the Internet as notebooks. There are no connectivity differences and thus no special management or security issues for IT when using a netbook remotely. Once the connection is made, hardware differences become invisible. At home or in the office, users can connect a keyboard and monitor to get around the ergonomics issue when working for long periods; on the road, they have an easier-to-carry system for light duties.

There's still the issue of supporting big apps like Microsoft Office, but as Google and others continue to put productivity applications in the cloud, the performance barrier could disappear -- assuming these cloud productivity apps can truly challenge Office.

Even if such cloud-based productivity apps don't end up displacing Office, several Office alternatives would work well for most "casual" business users -- particularly Lotus Symphony, as the InfoWorld Test Center discovered.

Netbooks as  notebook killers?  Not likely
Is the netbook going to replace the laptop? There are several reasons why this is unlikely.

Their very advantage in field service -- their small size -- means that users can't do much with them other than fill out a form, take an order, look up the availability of a replacement part, or check e-mail.

Ramon Ray, author of "Technology Solutions for Growing Businesses," is a netbook user, but he says its capabilities are limited by screen and keyboard size. Ray says he takes it with him on short day trips and even on one-nighters. "But if I'm going away for two or three days, it's too small."

Ray explains that he is a touch typist and that the small keyboard slows him down; also, he gets eyestrain from the 12-inch screen: "After 30 minutes, it's not going to happen."

Ray kids that you wouldn't want to run a CAD/CAM system on a netbook. Microsoft agrees, and it's not kidding. "A netbook is about consumption not creation," says James DeBragga, general manager for Windows Consumer Marketing at Microsoft. Simple document editing tasks are fine, but DeBragga says you wouldn't want to work on a complex spreadsheet on a netbook. If you're like the average user with 5 to 10 windows open simultaneously, you'll find that navigating among the applications and tackling serious business tasks is difficult, he says.

Not only is the screen small, but the keyboard is three-quarter size, so typing will be harder for most people. From an ergonomics standpoint, netbooks are not big enough to comfortably use over an extended period of time and not small enough to put in your pocket, notes Ken Dulaney, a senior analyst at Gartner.

Even if connected to a keyboard and monitor for better ergonomics, a netbook's processing and storage limitations come into play, confining its use to basic productivity tasks.

Road warriors may like the idea of a lightweight device for quick trips, but there's the extra cost and labor burden of maintaining two systems for these employees. Plus, what is the point of equipping your road warriors with a netbook for browsing and e-mail if they still need to carry around a full-sized notebook for everything else? In that situation, the netbook becomes not lightweight but extra weight. And the $300 plus price tag isn't a savings at all, but a luxury add-on. In this tough economic climate, that's a luxury you can skip.

Netbooks do have a place -- and a hidden advantage
Despite their limitations, it's clear that netbooks make sense in many field environments, as well as for traveling users such as salespeople who don't have demanding software needs.

And they will bring another advantage to businesses, says Gartner's Dulaney: Netbooks are putting downward price pressure on laptops. As notebooks get cheaper and perhaps a bit smaller, businesses save money.

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