Netbooks worm their way into businesses

Netbook systems are primarily seen as consumer devices. But the pint-size PCs are starting to find a place at some companies.

When ADNH Compass, a 17,000-employee catering company based in Abu Dhabi, decided to give its branch managers new PCs late last year, it chose Acer Inc.'s Aspire One netbooks instead of full-size laptops.

"The users who are not that computer-literate were excited that something like this was being given to them," said Graham Smith, ERP software manager at ADNH Compass. But it was Smith himself who pushed for the purchase of the low-cost, downsized Aspire One systems. "Both our operations managers and logistics operators are always on the move, so it makes sense to have something light and portable," he explained.

Now Smith is working to enable users of the 2.5-lb. netbooks to access the company's Web-based SAP applications via 3G wireless connections. He said that will let the branch managers at ADNH Compass, which operates throughout the Middle East, do month-end inventory counts in real time as they walk through product storage areas.

Early adopters such as ADNH Compass are showing that some of the conventional wisdom about netbooks — that they're too fragile for on-the-go corporate users, too tiny for doing real work and too underpowered to run business applications — may not be so wise after all.

Of course, the conventional wisdom a year ago was that netbooks weren't ready for consumers, either. But 16 million were sold worldwide in 2008, according to ABI Research, which predicts that 39 million netbooks will be sold this year and that unit sales will reach 139 million by 2013.

Netbooks such as the Aspire One and Asustek Computer Inc.'s Eee PC typically have smaller screens and keyboards and use less powerful processors than conventional laptops and notebook PCs do. But they're also lighter and usually less expensive, with prices often starting at under $400.

By a wide margin, netbooks have primarily been sold to home users thus far. But they can do anything a traditional work computer does — at least, from the perspective of Stan Jamrog, a network security instructor at Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, Mass.

Jamrog brings a Linux-based Eee PC 1000 that he bought himself to HCC, connects it to the school's network and does his work on the netbook. "No one has scoffed yet," said Jamrog, who added that he and a full-time security professor at the college are thinking about pushing to require students to have netbooks.

Most PC vendors have avoided marketing netbooks to businesses, partly to avoid cannibalizing sales of higher-priced laptops, and partly out of fear that they might be laughed out of the offices of IT managers.

But after Hewlett-Packard Co. introduced its 2133 Mini-Note netbook for consumers and schools last year, "we did get quite a bit of interest from the business sector," said Kyle Thornton, category manager for business notebook PCs at HP.

In response, HP last month launched the Mini 2140, a renamed second-generation system that includes a variety of features developed with business users in mind. For instance, the high-end version of the 2140 comes with a six-cell battery that HP claims can last up to eight hours, or the equivalent of a full business day, on a single charge.

All of the 2140 models, which start at $499, sport a 10-in. screen with resolution of up to 1366 by 768 — the same as on a 32-in., 720p high-definition TV, according to Thornton. They also include an accelerometer designed to protect disk drives against data loss if a system is dropped, and HP says the machines' batteries can be recharged to 90% capacity within 90 minutes. "We're not peddling some cheap, plasticky toy," Thornton said.

He added that although tight capital-equipment budgets are slowing PC purchases at many companies in these recessionary times, the relatively low price tags of netbooks should enable users to sneak them in under the radar. "If a sales vice president wants to get 20 $600 netbooks at a time, that is well within the signature authority of many executives," Thornton said.

Rival vendors are responding. Asus, as Asustek is commonly known, earlier this month announced an Eee PC 1000HE model with a specified battery life of up to 9.5 hours, although the system has yet to become available. Meanwhile, netbook market leader Acer is reportedly readying enterprise models of the Aspire One with larger screens and longer battery life.

Meeting Basic Needs

But for end user Gabriele Indeiri, the original Eee PC 701 from Asus already fits the bill for the limited number of applications he needs to run as part of his job as an account manager at a U.S.-based software vendor.

"I'm usually at customers' sites, and I have just a few basic needs: read e-mail, use and be able to show PowerPoints to customers, which I can do via my Eee's VGA port," said Indeiri, who asked that his employer not be named. A plus for the netbook is that it weighs only a shade over two pounds. "The [lack of] weight in my bag makes a difference," Indeiri said.

Even some IT professionals, who often look askance at new or nonstandard devices because of the security and tech support complications they can create, are relaxing that attitude in the case of netbooks.

"The only restriction from my IT manager is that I install the recommended antivirus software," said Benny Lo, a manager at a Hong Kong-based accounting firm that he asked not be named. Lo routinely uses his two Eee PCs on business trips or to work from home.

Malcolm Crabbe, a systems administrator at a restaurant supply company in London, said that the business replaced Dell Latitude laptops used by its 25 field engineers with Eee PC 901 systems three months ago.

Feedback from the users "has been very positive," said Crabbe, who also asked that his company not be identified. The netbooks, he noted, are "light enough to be held in one hand [and] compact enough to fit under the seats" in the vans used by field engineers — an attribute that he said helps prevent thefts.

But, Crabbe noted, the systems are also powerful enough to be used in reprogramming faulty customer equipment. The use of the netbooks is saving money and helping to speed up equipment repairs, he said, adding that the company hopes to get "two or three years from each Eee."

Got something to add? Let us know in the article comments.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon