Laptops

Netbooks for Business: Do They Make Sense?

With the 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.

[ Consideringa 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.

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