Notes from the netbook revolution

They're cheaper, greener, and capable enough for everyday business work -- if you can get XP Pro on them

Netbooks are the hardware trend of the day. In other words, they're cheap and selling like hotcakes. But I hear through back channels that vendors are having trouble "positioning" netbooks: How do they relate to full-size, full-power laptops? Are they second machines for the frequent or occasional traveler? And so on.

Well, I have a suggestion: Businesses should consider buying netbooks and rolling them out as desktop replacements. I'm not talking about the Linux variety. I'm talking about netbooks running Windows XP.

[ The InfoWorld Test Center rates netbooks for business. See who came out on top. ]

For obvious ergonomic reasons, you need to shell out for an external screen and keyboard to make a netbook a viable primary machine (plus a docking station, if available). But think about it: The Intel Atom CPU is plenty fast for running Office, they're so small and light that employees will like taking them home, you can actually use one in an airplane seat, and they cost half as much as an ordinary notebook (and less than many desktops). If you're really pinching pennies, you might also think of a netbook as a BlackBerry replacement.

I realize there are a couple of problems with this idea. For one thing, although netbooks represent a loophole through which Microsoft will allow XP to be sold until mid-2010, that extension is restricted to XP Home -- which is not a managed OS and thus inappropriate for business use.

Clearing Microsoft's netbook barriers

Yet you can still get XP Pro preinstalled from the vendor. The catch is you have to buy a Vista Business license (or Vista Ultimate license, but that costs more) and ask your vendor to "downgrade" your netbook to XP Pro. All the major vendors offer the downgrade option for ordinary desktops and notebooks (Microsoft says they can do so until August 2009), but this option is just beginning to be available for netbooks, such as HP's Mini-Notes.

The downside is that downgrading is somewhat pricey. Usually you pay an additional $50 for XP Pro (as opposed to XP Home). But Vista Business retails for $300, so you're paying a premium for a downgrade. Kinda knocks a little luster off the ultra-low netbook price.

Now, the cheapest route of all would be to buy a netbook with Ubuntu pre-installed, blow away the Linux partition, and provision the netbook using an existing Windows XP Pro (or Vista Business or Ultimate license, which will allow you to downgrade, although you need to supply your own XP Pro install image).

If you have an XP Pro site license, there is a caveat to consider: Microsoft isn't selling additional seats for it, so you'll have to retire an old machine to free up the seat for the new netbook. And whether you install XP Pro directly or as a downgrade from Vista, the standard install won't have any special drivers the netbook needs, so you need to ensure the netbook vendor has them available for download.

I'm certain some people stopped reading this post several paragraphs ago and are already flaming me in the comments section. We're still harping on keeping XP running? Don't we know this is a dead issue? Well, it's true that most new hardware renders the performance delta between XP and Vista moot. But it makes a difference on an Atom-powered netbook. Plus, times are tough, folks. Businesses that can pull off the XP Pro site license trick can get an ultra-cheap upgrade that really adds some mobile value. A lot more value, IMHO, than upgrading from XP to Vista.

The netbook value proposition

Naturally, you don't want to run much more than productivity applications and a Web browser with a netbook. Performancewise, these babies are retro. And if your company relies on a lot of high-overhead security and manageability junk to wrangle its client machines, you could be creating an unpardonably sluggish situation for users. Test one before you buy more.

And I haven't forgotten you, Ubuntu fans. Ubuntu plus OpenOffice is certainly another feasible route, although manageability and software compatibility could be problematic. A more interesting scenario might emerge when Microsoft delivers final releases of its browser-based Live versions of Office. These software-as-a-service apps will not require IE to run.

My final argument for netbooks is that they're "greener." The Acer Aspire One netbook in our office consumes 11.1 volts at 2200 milliamps as opposed to my ThinkPad, which consumes 20 volts at 3.25 amps. Multiply that across a few hundred notebooks or desktops, and you're talking a significantly smaller carbon footprint (and, yes, a reduced electric bill). Plus, netbooks have smaller lithium-ion batteries.

So go ahead, call my suggestion retrograde, since I'm basically suggesting that businesses stick with existing desktop software and baseline horsepower. Or maybe I'm just proposing a practical solution for lean times.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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