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.