IT shops that have adopted netbooks say the portability and low price compared with traditional laptop PCs are the biggest benefits. Those are reasons why Mike Rigsby, a network administrator at a circuit board manufacturer in Oregon and IT blogger, plans to give a netbook a chance when it's time to upgrade his laptop.
"[In terms of its functions], a netbook can handle Microsoft Office, OneNote [and] Internet usage and has a very high battery life," Rigsby said. "They're totally capable of 99% of any business needs."
Netbooks are available from Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer and a handful of other vendors with a variety of operating system choices and cost far less than traditional laptops, at $250 to $500 a pop.
Netbooks are smaller than laptops, with an 8.9- to 12.1-in. screen and a keyboard that's 80% to 90% of the size of a laptop keyboard -- which works both for and against these devices. They also weigh about half of what a laptop weighs (2.5 to 3.5 lb) and offer double the battery life (six to 12 hours).
For the past couple of years, analysts predicted that netbooks would make their way into enterprises in no time, and indeed, they have. In a recent survey of SearchEnterpriseDesktop and Technology Guide readers that attracted more than 600 respondents, 468 said they use netbooks in their organizations.
Of organizations using netbooks, most are used by support staff (113 respondents), top executives (103) or "other" (119), and the majority of organizations (383) use them as supplements to their primary desktop systems.
The majority of respondents (240) who plan to expand their use of netbooks this year expect to add only 5% to 10% more, and 126 respondents said they would increase netbook use from 11% to 25%.
Why not netbooks?
Those who are not using netbooks (39) said they think the devices are too limited and less capable than notebook PCs. A smaller number said that they don't see netbooks as serious business tools or that netbooks aren't supported by corporate mobile management policies.
One hurdle not covered in the survey is a common issue for new technologies: resistance to change.
"Modern netbooks are more than capable of handling most portable business needs. [But] the psychological barrier of 'That's how we've always done it' is a major hindrance to technological advancement and change," Rigsby said. "I bet if a group of laptop-using business people were questioned as to why they use a laptop, every point they'd raise could be handled as well or better by a netbook."
But the issue of a smaller screen and keyboard is hard to overcome. There are also performance limitations. The screen resolution is typically only 600 pixels; it doesn't handle video or graphics to the level of notebook PCs; and the operating system is not enterprise-level, though they can be built up, said Leslie Fiering, an analyst at Gartner Inc.
"Netbooks are really just executive jewelry," Fiering said. "You can build them up into an enterprise-class device, but that makes them more expensive, which defeats part of the purpose."
Fiering said companies considering netbooks should look at the cost of upgrading the operating system and what it takes to make these devices worthy business tools. "If you are buying a netbook because you want something that's a compact size, then you have a reason," she said.
One analyst recently reported that the Apple iPad would cripple netbook sales, but Gartner said in an April 2010 report that the iPad and other touch-screen devices won't hurt netbooks in the enterprise. Part of the reason is that legacy enterprise applications don't support touch screens, and "mouse-trained employees" want a keyboard for work.
That said, employees increasingly bring their own devices to work, and enterprises will have to acknowledge the use of touch for their mainstream knowledge users at some point, Gartner said.