Netbooks: Are they ready for the enterprise?

Netbooks are winning over consumer hearts and credit cards. While some consumer products, such as iPhones, have pushed their way into the enterprise, netbooks haven't. Is it just a matter of time before netbooks become an enterprise staple or will they remain a consumer-only product?

[ Slideshow: Are netbooks ready for the enterprise?Slideshow: Rise of the netbook ]

To help you decide, here are five reasons netbooks should be considered for enterprise use, along with five reasons to think twice.

First, we must agree on a definition. The primary characteristic is a 10-inch diagonal screen, which makes the netbook far smaller and a different form factor than a laptop. The second defining detail is the small, power-saving Atom processor from Intel. Finally, the tradeoff for that small form factor is the lack of internal CD or DVD optical drives.

Netbooks remain much less expensive (less than $400) than most laptops on approved corporate purchasing lists. Default operating systems range from Windows XP Home to various Linux flavors to the Windows 7 Starter Edition promised by Microsoft in October. Wi-Fi capabilities ship with every netbook, while 3G wireless broadband support is common, but not automatic.

5 pros

1. Portability with extended battery life

Smaller and lighter than many of the books describing them, netbooks started with 8.9-inch diagonal screens, but 10.2-inch screens have become by far the most popular. In spite of their small size, many models boast battery times of five or more hours, due in large part to the Intel Atom processor.

As the laptop became a desktop replacement and screens grew to as large as 17 inches, ease of portability disappeared. Netbooks drop into briefcases almost unnoticed, and also into many purses. A portable computer that employees dread carrying doesn't do the company much good, but a netbook screams portability.

2. Price

At less than $400 for many models and less than $300 at the low end, netbooks are less expensive than the standard enterprise laptop. And price sensitive verticals, such as education, have taken notice. The leading early adopter for netbooks has been K-12 education customers. Both Dell and HP tout strong netbook sales success to school districts.

"Our Latitude 2100 models are focused on education," says Maulik Pandya, senior planning manager for commercial notebooks at Dell. "Enterprises are buying them on a pilot basis, but education customers are buying them in boatloads." The Dell Latitude 2100s list for less than $400.

HP has a similar story. "One large school district, Fresno, California, has bought seven to eight thousand of our mini-notebooks," says Helen Daniel, product marketing manager for HP commercial notebooks. "Several large districts are using these for their one-to-one computing initiative."

Rough handling by students was one reason HP's second generation netbook, the 2140, has an all metal case, 3D Drive Guard to park the hard disk heads when dropped, and a spill-resistant keyboard. The lowest-end version of the 2140 also sells for less than $400.

3. Easy access to apps and data for mobile workers

The second largest adoption rate for netbooks has been by healthcare. Pam Seale, product marketing manager for Absolute.com, says, "We're seeing healthcare customers go with netbooks because they tend to plug into the data they need rather than carry it on the computer." Data regulations on health records have helped move data storage from devices to a more centralized and controllable location. Absolute.com's CompuTrace product helps track and recover lost computers. Their embedded security software works on netbooks just as well as on laptops.

4. Enterprise-level management and security

Andre Angel, President Americas, NTRglobal, supplies remote control and management software to service companies. "We can support client netbooks with the same technology we currently use, without any changes."

The same goes for endpoint security and endpoint management software from Symantec. "We're hearing little about netbooks from enterprises, but our software supports them," says Christine Ewing, director of product marketing for endpoint management at Symantec. "The Atom processor doesn't have the management features of Intel's vPRO technology, but if the netbook has an enterprise operating system, we have no problems."

5. Great value for loaners

Almost everyone contacted relayed interest from IT departments for netbooks as inexpensive "loaner laptops" for employees getting their regular machine serviced.

5 cons

1. Underpowered

Netbooks are not general purpose computers able to run applications as fast as a laptop that features a more powerful Intel processor and more RAM. Designed for portability and battery life, the Intel Atom processor sets no performance records. Limited RAM support (1GB to 2GB) emphasizes the light duty aspect of netbooks.

2. No TPM or Biometric Security

Trusted Platform Module (TPM) is a secure cryptoprocessor added to enterprise class laptops by many manufacturers. Without TPM support, Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group, says, "Successful netbook deployments in the enterprise are unlikely."

While insiders say off the record that TPM and biometric support are ordered on laptops far more often than implemented, some customers demand them. Price will keep TPM and biometrics off netbooks for the foreseeable future.

"Cost is a big issue," HP's Daniel says. "Our education customers don't want to pay for TPM and biometrics they won't use."

Enhanced security may come from elsewhere, however. One vendor says it is working on facial recognition software that uses the Web cam built into the lid of their netbooks for security authentication. They're not yet willing to go on record about their plans.

3. Default OS not enterprise ready

The vast majority of netbooks today ship running Windows XP Home, an operating system that does not play well with enterprise directory services. Windows 7 Starter Edition won't support enterprise domain integration, either. HP and Dell both offer OS customization and configuration services, and companies can image the hard drive of netbooks using their own Microsoft licenses. But that extra time and expense eliminates some of the cost savings as a driver for netbook adoption.

4. No optical drive

Airline passengers used to play Solitaire on their laptops but today they play DVDs. No netbook offers an internal optical drive, although all have USB ports that support external drives.

For security reasons, some companies disable CD and DVD drives to stop users from loading unauthorized software, so this may be a wash. Enterprises use desktop automation software, not optical disks, to install applications. Traveling employees can go back to Solitaire.

5. Too small

Portability comes at a price, and that price is screen and keyboard size. Those with large fingers or weak eyesight will balk at the netbook's smaller keyboards and screens. If a user can't type on the keyboards that range from 88% to 94% of regular keyboard size (some 10-inch netbook keyboards feel much smaller than that), it won't matter how well the netbook fits on the airplane tray table.

The 5% solution?

Dell's Pandya says, "Netbooks are trending toward 5% of the market now. They won't get into the double digits." Outside K-12 education and some healthcare applications those numbers will probably remain true for the next year or two.

Yet, as netbooks develop, and more companies move toward a thin client, browser based application model, those percentages will move upward. Consumers love netbooks, and pundits encourage enterprise IT departments to accept a growing number of products first adopted by consumers. Since users often ignore IT guidelines, get ready for the netbook question. Enterprise ready or not, some number of netbooks are in your future.

Gaskin writes books, articles and jokes about technology and real life from his home office in the Dallas area. He has been helping small to midsize businesses use technology intelligently since 1986. He can be reached at readers@gaskin.com.

This story, "Netbooks: Are they ready for the enterprise?" was originally published by NetworkWorld.

Insider: How the basic tech behind the Internet works
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies