April 27, 2009, 11:23 AM — Netbook sales will likely grow by 50 percent in the next two years, according to research firm IDC, but the gadgets will need some more bells and whistles to gain popularity inside enterprises, say IT professionals.
At this point, most enterprise IT managers we've talked to say they don't want low-powered, lightweight netbooks as primary devices, mainly because these little laptops are & well & too little, with unreliable connectivity and security features. They are better served as secondary machines for workers who travel frequently, say IT managers.
Yet netbook features will keep evolving at a price point irresistable to any IT pro. Also, as more corporate data moves to the cloud and is available on the Web to mobile users, netbooks will have a better chance to pass muster with enterprise IT managers, say industry analysts.
This could happen sooner rather than later, as netbook manufacturers are starting to release netbooks with a bigger screens, more built-in wireless connectivity options such as Bluetooth and 3G, and longer battery life.
Many of the netbook features that IT pros wish for are already available - just not all on the same machine.
Here's what IT managers have to say about the ideal netbook.
Bigger Screen and Keyboard
A common gripe among IT managers: netbooks aretoo small, even for mobile workers who only require basic functions such as Web browsing and e-mail.
Stephen Laughlin, Director of IT at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, says he would consider moving some users to netbooks once they have bigger hard drives, keyboards and screens.
"Even road warriors may not want to look at a small screen or type on a small keyboard, but this could change in the future."
"People have adjusted to using iPhones, Blackberrys, and other small devices, so the adaption from laptop to netbook could be coming," he adds.
The wish for larger displays seems to already have been heard by vendors. Manufacturer Acer just released a version of its Aspire One line with an 11.6 inch screen and a full-size keyboard, both firsts for a netbook.
Better Wireless Connectivity
While all netbooks have built-in Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity, most only have the bare-bones Wi-Fi protocol (802.11b or g) and not the much faster 802.11n. This may be acceptable for unfussy consumers, but is unacceptable for an enterprise that demands ultra-reliable wireless Internet connectivity.
"Netbook enterprise users will be mobile so reliable means of connecting to the Internet and VPN are paramount and reliability - especially because they are often away from the office and service personnel - becomes key," says Michael Boyer, VP of global IT for Fiberlink, a mobile security software company.
Bluetooth for exchanging data between devices, along with Wi-Fi, is also a must for netbooks, Boyer adds.
Markus Hill, VP of technology at construction company Rodgers Builders in North Carolina, agrees with Boyer about the importance of reliable wireless, and wants his enterprise netbooks to be light as a feather and super-connected.
"Key features for me would be built-in 3G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Ethernet - and less than two pounds in weight," he says.
Hill may have to keep dreaming about that "less than two pounds", but not about Bluetooth and 3G. Some netbooks include built-in Bluetooth, although very few have built-in 3G. But this is changing fast. Recently, Dell and Lenovo released netbooks with integrated 3G capability. But even if those capabilities are not built in, most netbooks will allow 3G and Bluetooth cards to connect through USB ports.
Remote Management and Improved Security
"Remote management of the device, like with Blackberry Enterprise Server for Blackberry smartphones, would make netbook adoption in the enterprise much easier," says Hill.
Laughlin echoes this notion, saying that because netbooks are so easily lost or stolen, IT pros would need the machines to have built-in disk encryption. He also wants the power to remotely manage, locate and, if necessary, delete all the data on a netbook.
"A dream netbook would be one that could be managed remotely using something similar to BES (Blackberry Enterprise Server) or using KACE systems management software," Laughlin says.
He would like to erase the information on a netbook remotely if it is lost or stolen, similar to a Blackberry. Also the ability to remotely locate a lost or stolen netbook is a requirement for Laughlin. "Something like 'LoJack for Laptops' for netbooks," he says.
Though netbooks are priced in the $300 to $500 range, Laughlin says the low cost is meaningless if netbooks are not secure.
"What matters is security and administration," he says. "Without these two things, you're simply going to have to spend a lot of resources providing updates, maintenance, and support, with real risks for security breaches."