While the term "netbook" has no formal definition it typically applies to a class of mobile computers, from vendors such as Asus, HP, Acer and Dell, that are smaller than conventional laptops, with lower resolution displays of 7 to 11 inches, sometimes much lighter overall, no or fairly small hard drives, and that rely on less powerful CPUs. To some critics, that adds up to a crippled notebook PC.
But the best ones are extremely portable, able to be slipped into a large coat pocket, have an almost full QWERTY keyboard, offer a screen that is vastly bigger than your smartphone, and they are inexpensive: less than $500 and sometimes well under. Sales exploded last December and are expected to continue strong.
A few days ago, Kurt Madden, CTO for Fresno Unified School District, watched a classroom of fifth graders working with HP Mini-Note 2133, netbook-class machines with 8.9-inch screens, a nearly full-sized QWERTY keyboard, several of the Microsoft Office applications, Internet Explorer and precious little else.
Each student was creating a report on one of the U.S. states. Via the netbooks' integrated 802.11g Wi-Fi radio, they linked to the WLAN to access the Internet, surfing for statistics and other data, photographs, and even audio files of the state bird chirping. They pulled all this into Microsoft Publish, creating their multimedia reports, which were then posted to their personal sites on the school's SharePoint server, where each report could be viewed by teachers.
"I would guess that 50% or more of the time they're on the netbook, they're accessing the Internet," Madden says.
Although the Fresno students aren't yet carrying the netbooks around (generally, the devices are assigned to classrooms, where they're shared by students), they work in and through a pervasive wireless network: they're always connected. And Madden notes that the school's PCs now have fewer native applications than ever before, because so much of the processing, data, storage and applications are online. And that means that users need something much less than a full-blown notebook PC to work, study, collaborate and entertain.
The Online Enterprise
That's a model that fits with corporate computing trends, according to analysts. Mobile users typically need access to resources on the corporate network, and increasingly to resources on the Web. Desktop virtualization, which centralizes desktop applications for more cost-effective management and improved security is a related trend that is, in effect, offloading tasks and applications that previously ran on the notebook.
"These netbooks are comparable to a 2003 notebook" in performance, says Rob Enderle, principal analyst for Enderle Group, which focuses on personal technology products. "People woke up and said, 'well, that's good enough.'"
For some number of enterprise users and their application requirements, netbooks' portability and price will be compelling. But potential customers may want to wait for a few months to buy one.
The most recent netbook introductions make some of the products seem almost indistinguishable from the very low-end traditional notebook PCs. Bigger screens, but none yet reaching 12 inches, bigger hard drives, more weight for longer-running high-capacity batteries and so on, and price tags routinely well over $500. But even so, if you need a notebook's raw power or screen size or keyboard, you won't get it on a netbook.