The netbook. Once owned solely by geeks, the small, portable laptop is quickly becoming an important segment in the PC industry. According to analysts at ABI Research, 39 million netbooks will ship by the end of 2009. IDC, another market analyst, contends that 21 million netbooks will be sold this year. Either way, the segment is growing rapidly. At the same time, sales of laptops and desktops were down in 2008 and most analysts believe that trend will continue through 2009.
And so, as netbooks are being cited as the possible saviors of the PC industry (a claim that is probably more hype than anything else), the attention quickly turns to the enterprise to see how (or rather, if) the devices can replace the desktop and notebook in businesses across the world.
Some say that netbooks make sense for the enterprise because they are easily totable from the office to a client’s location. Others say that they provide enterprise customers with what they really need: an affordable alternative to expensive HP, Dell or Lenovo laptops. But those arguments don’t consider the many needs of companies. Lugging computers from one office to another isn’t such an important concern. And while affordability matters, the return on that investment matters more.
When it comes to netbooks, that return isn’t high enough.
There are a variety of netbooks on the market from companies such as Asus and Acer. Most of the companies that sell netbooks offer Windows, but in some cases, the netbooks come bundled with Linux, requiring companies to pay a little more for Windows. It won’t break the bank (Windows machines usually retail for no more than $50 more than Linux netbooks), but it’s the version of Windows that hurts most companies. Asus Eee PCs come bundled with Windows XP Home. Just one Acer Aspire One netbook model — the Aspire One Pro — comes bundled with Windows XP Professional. Companies looking for anything else, such as Windows Vista Business Edition, won’t find it in a netbook.
The reason for that is yet another problem with netbooks — they simply don’t have the power to run resource-intensive operating systems such as Windows Vista. Netbooks are extremely underpowered. Asus’ top-of-the-line Eee PC netbook sports a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor and an integrated Intel graphics card. The netbook has 1GB of RAM and up to a 160GB hard drive. But it lacks a DVD drive, comes standard with Windows XP Home, and won’t have the power to handle a variety of resource-intensive enterprise applications.
And isn’t that the biggest problem with the power issue in netbooks? Sure, it’s a great Web surfing device. And performing basic tasks such as answering e-mails and writing up a quick document is possible. But when it comes time to open a major enterprise application, the netbooks’ viability is severely diminished. They simply don’t provide the kind of capability that a notebook or desktop can. In the business world, netbooks are little more than Web surfing toys.
The Middle Ground
Netbooks have another problem in the enterprise: They don’t have a place in the market. As the enterprise becomes more connected, employees are more reliant than ever on smartphones. Whether it’s the iPhone or a BlackBerry, professionals are using the small devices to stay in touch when they’re away from a computer. When they do have access to a computer, they need to have a product that’s capable of handling their needs. They need that laptop with the 2.4GHz processor. They require that DVD drive. They need Windows XP Professional to ensure they have the right operating system to do their job. Simply put, they need a laptop or a desktop.
So that leaves the netbook squarely between two necessities. An Asus Eee PC isn’t quite as small or handy as a BlackBerry. And an Acer Aspire One isn’t as powerful as an HP notebook. And since the netbook is, by its very nature, a more portable computer, companies are hard-pressed to find reasons to buy it for employees. After all, if they have the small device for mobile business access and the powerful device for real work, how does the netbook fit into that equation? So far, that question hasn’t been answered.
Those who support netbooks claim that the technology doesn’t cause users to lose productivity. But given the fact that most netbooks have keyboards that are smaller than standard keyboards, that argument might not hold up. On numerous occasions, I’ve tried to type long documents on a netbook and found that my hands were cramped, I made far too many mistakes and the keyboard was simply too small for what I was trying to do. I never grew accustomed to it. Realizing that, it’s difficult to say that the enterprise could enjoy the same productivity by deploying netbooks instead of laptops. Employees would have trouble typing out documents and they simply wouldn’t be comfortable performing basic tasks. Not to mention, the netbook’s underpowered specs could cause slow-downs. It would be a real hindrance.
And perhaps that’s the mantra as we consider netbooks for the enterprise. They might be useful to some, but when it comes to business, they’re a real hindrance.
And they have no place in the enterprise.