Netbooks: Are they ready for the enterprise?

By James E. Gaskin, Network World |  Hardware, laptop, netbook

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.

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