June 01, 2009, 9:48 AM — What It Is: Netbooks have hit a nerve. According to DisplaySearch's forecast, sales for these small, low-cost notebooks will rise 65 percent in 2009, compared to just a 3 percent growth for standard notebooks. The form factor is attractive. For example, the HP Mini 2140 costs just US$500, sports the low-power Intel Atom processor, has a battery life of six hours and weighs just three pounds.
Why The Hype: Netbooks meet a need. Smartphones, such as the Apple iPhone, are intended for what DisplaySearch analyst John Jacobs calls a three-minute experience--enough time to check e-mail or call the office. A notebook is for longer sessions, maybe three hours. A netbook fits in between. It's designed for a 30-minute experience including Web access, e-mail and document editing. Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, says netbooks are travel-friendly, fit well with enterprise hot-swap repair procedures (since they are easy to manage) and thus can work for both IT managers and mobile professionals such as sales agents.
The Real Deal: Netbooks seem viable. JeffreyBreen,the CTO at Yankee Group, tells of an employee who bought his own netbook and found it worked well for quick Web and e-mail sessions. Yet, if there was a jury for enterprise decisions, they would still be deliberating netbook value. Gottheil notes that more robust e-mail products, such as Outlook or Notes, run best on a dual-core processor. In a mass deployment of netbooks, an enterprise might have to add more wireless access points or change wireless configurations to avoid interference issues, which add to the cost. "Netbooks may be an optional [device] in enterprise environments in the future," says Thomas Endres, CIO with Lufthansa. But right now, they're not fit for engineering and other complex applications.
Bob Hersch, the global managing director of the workplace technology and collaboration practice at Accenture, thinks netbooks work well for consumers of information but not creators of information.
The company, with 180,000 knowledge workers across the globe, has given a solid "it depends" answer on netbooks. Hersch says it is important to match the needs of the end user to the device. In many ways, that's even the consensus among netbook manufacturers. Lenovo, which makes the IdeaPad S10, markets the netbook as an accessory.
Should You Invest? In an enterprise environment--where standardization is key and superfluous accessories are verboten--the netbook is a hard sell. It's another form factor for IT to support, and the more limited processor is not a good fit for anyone who creates information--say, in an Excel spreadsheet. Interestingly, netbooks--and related nettops (for example, thin desktops)--may become a good option for thin computing after the hype of massive consumer interest subsides. According to Jacobs, the sub-$500 price point is also attractive as a quick replacement unit in the enterprise--a Hyundai loaner while your Audi gets repaired.
John Brandon is a Minnesota-based freelance writer.