Netbooks: Not For Everyday Commercial Use, For Household Use Only?

I've been answering a lot of inquiries recently on whether or not netbooks are the next big trend in the corporate space and publications such as InformationWeek are all over the netbook phenomenon. Last week I wrote a post in response to a Forrester analyst who implied that enterprises will buy fewer laptops and equip workers with just blackberries or netbooks. Pat at AMD—it looks like we're in for another spectacle and there is no juicy Britney news to counterbalance.

Before I dig in to my argument, let me say upfront that I have no issues with netbooks. If fact, if I didn't have a hardware graveyard at my house I would get one (one of my New Year's resolutions is before something comes into my house, something has to go out – preferably two).

There are arguments for the use of netbooks in corporations for specific usage models. I totally agree. In fact, we're evaluating some of those scenarios. (Note to readers: I am not announcing or committing to anything, I'm saying that we are evaluating various usage models)  My argument is this: If corporate customers want their workers/employees to be mobile – they'll get them laptops. There are three key areas to my argument: usability, complexity and performance.

Let's tackle usability first. I'm not sure if many of you have tried to type on a 9-inch netbook keyboard, but beyond casual, entertainment-focused interaction with the system you won't get much work done (I admit that I do have big, stubby fingers). And, one of the only ways I can keep my sanity with a 12-inch laptop, a form factor I've used for almost 6 years, is the ability to dock my system and use a 20-inch widescreen LCD, keyboard and mouse. One final point before I go on to the next topic is that there are laptops in the industry that are in the same weight range as netbooks, but deliver full functionality. Take our 12-inch Latitude E4200, for example, that has a starting weight of 2.2 pounds.

Next is complexity. Another argument I have seen is netbooks make great companion devices for use on the road. Again, I don't think a netbook can become the sole system for a corporate user. But for argument's sake, let's say that an employee has a desktop at work and just needs to check on email, etc. Hmmm…Well that means maintaining another software image and keeping a completely different stock of replacement parts. Oh, and we can't leave out security and manageability if the system is going to be allowed on the internal network. You see where I'm going with this? Money, time, resources. What about smart phones? Or even better, webmail that employees access from ANY computer. Dell is really fancy because I can get to actual applications through a Citrix agent on my desktop (also my media hub) at home.

Let's talk about performance. I don't know about most people, but on a typical day I have at least a dozen emails open, 3-5 PPTs open, 10 or so browsers open, a few PDFs, 2-3 Word docs and I watch a lot of videos. And, I do go between all of them quite often. So take that workload and add all the compliance, manageability, security and encryption processes/applications IT runs in the background. Can a netbook do all of that? If someone has attempted this, please let me know. My guess is that you'll hose the system.

With all of this in mind, here is how I would use a netbook. I brought this example up over here the other day in the comments, but think it is applicable for this discussion. When I vacation, I do well to get myself to the airport on time because I'm wrapping things up at work, making arrangements at the kennel for my pups, cleaning out the fridge, getting my bags packed, etc. I don't have an itinerary except for the return flight. Upon arrival and sleeping off jet lag, I pull up the Internet, go to travel sites and find local blogs that are a treasure trove of attractions that are off the beaten path. In fact, this is how I got around Shanghai the last time I vacationed there. A netbook is absolutely perfect for this. Perhaps I'll get rid of a few pieces of hardware at home so I can make room for an Inspiron Mini.

At the end of the day, I think netbooks are great. You can't beat the price and form factor, but I just don't see it as the only system a businessperson would use. And, if corporations want their employees to have a companion device, they need to think about cost and resource implications. As one of my colleagues put it when referring to netbooks versus laptops, one is about consumption, the other is about production. I don't know what the future will bring and we've got on finger on the pulse of our customers in this space, but today I don't see a big netbook trend for corporations just yet. I do think there will be specialized scenarios where netbooks make perfect sense. As more netbooks targeted at corporate customers emerge, I believe that interest will go up as businesses have more time to consider where the products will fit in their organizations. It also takes businesses and institutions, generally speaking, a little longer to adopt new technology because they generally have to consider backend processes (systems management, security, etc), in addition to just acquisition prices. I hope this post sparks some thinking.

What are your thoughts?

About the Author: Jeremy Bolen