HP is even more ambitious. Besides the three editions of Windows 7 that it plans to support, the vendor hopes that it will be able to continue to pre-install both Windows XP Professional and Vista Business on its business-oriented netbooks even after the new operating system ships, Thornton said. (Vista Business is the product-line equivalent of the planned Windows 7 Professional edition.)
In the Mini 2140 system that it introduced last month, HP offers three operating systems for business users: XP Pro, Vista Business, and Novell's Suse Enterprise Linux. No other netbook maker "supports business operating systems because, frankly, they are not being supported by Intel or Microsoft at all," Thornton claimed. "We went out on a limb to put XP Pro and Vista Business on the 2140 and make sure it runs fine."
HP is the largest notebook PC vendor worldwide on an overall basis. But in the netbook category, it's a distant third behind the top two vendors, Acer and Asustek Computer, according to market-research figures released in December by DisplaySearch.
HP's largest netbook customer, the Fresno Unified School District in California, bought 7,000 of its original 2133 Mini-Note machines last year. But despite "quite a bit of interest from the business sector," HP has yet to make any large corporate sales, Thornton said.
HP is betting that will change with the Mini 2140. Featuring battery life of up to 8 hours, a hard drive with anti-drop data protection capabilities, and a sleek-yet-professional aluminum casing, the 2140 is being explicitly targeted at the Fortune 500.
"We're not peddling some cheap, plastic-y toy," Thornton said. "I believe that we've got the one of the first, if not only, viable business netbooks out there." He added that a number of Fortune 200 companies are already testing the 2140.
However, both Acer and Asus, as Asustek is known, are also bringing out business-friendly netbooks to compete with the 2140. And Thornton conceded that because of the economy, many corporations have slashed the capital-equipment budgets that they normally reserve for PC purchases, among other things.
But Thornton contends that the 2140's relatively low price tag (the machine lists for between $499 and $650), combined with HP's formidable corporate sales force, will result in numerous sales of relatively small quantities to business users who can buy the system without having to tap into capital-equipment funds.
"Everyone is looking for less-costly alternatives," he said. "If a sales vice president wants to get 20 $600 netbooks at a time, that is well within the signature authority of many executives."
Thornton also argued that the 2140 won't necessarily cannibalize sales of HP's bigger and more expensive laptops. "For a salesperson," he said, "a netbook can actually be a good companion to a 15-inch notebook PC."
Computerworld is an InfoWorld affiliate.