April 20, 2009, 10:01 AM — Sales of lightweight, low-powered mini-laptops, widely known as netbooks, have been growing rapidly with consumers during the past six months and are predicted to stay on this path. And the tech industry can't seem to get enough of talking about netbooks these days; the hype meter has been clicking up steadily for months. But do these little engines really have a place in the enterprise?
The answer is "not yet", according to IT professionals interviewed for this story.
On the bright side, most netbooks on the market do provide enough CPU power, storage and wireless connectivity, not to mention low enough prices and easy portability, to be attractive to enterprises, IT pros say. (Netbooks will likely also become more appealing to enterprises as more corporate resources move to the cloud and are accessible on the Web, analysts say.)
But the negatives outweigh the positives when you consider netbooks as primary machines at enterprises, many IT vets say.
Paradoxically, this is good news for Microsoft, which runs Windows XP on nearly all netbooks, backed up by Intel's low-power Atom processors. Both companies want to keep netbooks small and inexpensive to prevent them from stealing sales away from conventional laptops, a large and profitable market.
Yet the IT pros interviewed for this story expressed a desire to have netbooks be bigger and faster. This presents a conundrum for Microsoft: OEM's could beef up netbook specs -- perhaps add bigger screens, more ports and faster chips to please enterprises -- thus making netbooks a more legitimate, but still cheaper, competitor to laptops.
Here are IT professionals' big three gripes about today's netbooks.
Too Small, Too Slow
Many IT managers cite the diminutive size of netbooks, lack of encryption features and the potential for theft or loss as liabilities, leading them to view netbooks more as a complement to a desktop or laptop computer.
Stephen Laughlin, Director of IT at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, takes a hard stance against netbooks in the enterprise. He says he's not ruling out netbooks for the future, but for now, he's not switching to netbooks anytime soon.
"I would consider moving some users to netbooks once they have more computing power, faster CPU, bigger hard drives, bigger keyboard and bigger screens," he says.
Laughlin emphasizes that his enterprise staffers, like many others, want computers that are robust and powerful, and that having an inexpensive netbook merely as a backup machine defeats the intended purpose of saving money.
Laughlin doesn't buy into the potential cost savings of netbooks as primary machines, either.
"We've used laptops for three to five years or longer," he says. "In this time span, a netbook may need to be replaced. And if a netbook has more problems than a laptop, then this will lead to more support time, down time, and could result in lost productivity."
Not Necessarily a Money Saver
Likewise, Michael Boyer, VP of global IT for Fiberlink, a mobile security software company, agrees with Laughlin that purchasing a netbook as a secondary machine doesn't address the cost-saving problem that netbooks are designed to solve.
"The caution with netbooks is that they are less capable than laptops," says Boyer. "I will only purchase them for someone who is confident that a netbook will meet their needs as a primary device. There is no cost savings if it ends up being a secondary device."
Boyer says that netbooks in enterprises are only a good fit for the most mobile users -- and given that fact, he would like to see enhancements in durability and Internet connectivity, "even if it demands a premium in price."
Nevertheless, Fiberlink's Boyer does plan to purchase some netbooks for his company's sales engineers, developers and other employees who travel frequently.
"Our sales engineers are often mobile and our product set runs fine on netbooks," Boyer says. "Some of our developers like netbooks as well, especially the guys that go back and forth between the U.S. and India."
Netbooks Pose a Security Risk
Chris Rapp, Assistant VP of Technology at Sovereign Bank, has both netbook performance and security concerns on his mind.
Rapp says that he has no plans to purchase netbooks at this time, citing that they do not have the processor speed, ports or RAM necessary to handle the application workloads demanded at his company.
Plus, because Sovereign is a financial institution governed closely by privacy laws, the netbooks would need to be well encrypted and secured, he adds.
Rapp estimates that to fully encrypt a fleet of netbooks would be costly and "not truly justified for such low-end devices," he says. "Therefore, we typically purchase higher-end laptops for our users that already have these necessary capabilities."
Rapp says he would consider a netbook as a complementary machine for certain users. Similar to Boyer, Rapp thinks netbooks are best suited for workers who travel frequently. "Netbooks are ideal for air travel and in airports and hotel lobbies. They're a good complementary device that let you be lean and mean while traveling."
But smaller can also equal easier to lose. Adds Laughlin: "If there was a way to locate and lock a netbook that was lost or stolen, this would ease my security concerns."
Are you a Tweeter? Follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/smoneill
Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter at twitter.com/CIOonline