Netbooks, which once promised to revolutionize enterprise computing by enabling a mobile workforce, have slipped from the public consciousness and are haunting the IT staffers who remember them.
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I recently saw a carefully maintained Asus notebook in a coffee shop, and it brought back memories of the marvel that swept through corporate America in 2007. At the time, netbooks seemed like a great way to enable employees to work from anywhere because of their compact footprint, light weight, modest prices and good-enough performance.
Asus led the way into the mainstream consumer market with its 9-by-6.-in. sub-notebook. Then, just as suddenly as they arrived, netbooks were consigned to the graveyard of enterprise backrooms as they were overshadowed by tablets and smartphones.
I think that other forces were at work and that netbook ghosts continue to materialize in various forms as the enterprise changes and computing evolves.
9-to-5 work negates some need for netbooks
One of the great promises of the netbook was radically increased mobility for managers, salespeople and "virtual" workers. Productivity would soar because employees could flip open their netbooks anywhere and get the job done.
I remember insisting on a notebook as my primary computing platform when I joined Lockheed Martin Financial Services as a special projects internal consultant in 2006. My director's office was in another state and since I'd be working on a variety of projects, being able to compute anywhere was certainly a requirement.
While I embraced the mobile lifestyle, I quickly found that very few others in my organization brought notebooks to meetings. In addition, many of the financial services personnel were physically grouped by department, regularly scanned complex spreadsheets on dual screens, talked extensively on the phone and had fairly regular hours.
A large number of modern workers have always been tied to a department, building or address. They don't need mobility, much less a netbook. However, portable computing is still necessary and very effective for certain jobs, such as consultants who travel extensively.
Newer devices succeed the netbook
Tablets and smartphones now have better batteries, networking options, processing power, connectivity and applications than netbooks. Will instant, always-on devices completely replace desktops or notebooks?
Even though most professionals carry smartphones, they haven't completely jettisoned their old workhorse PCs or Macs. They're still useful for typing documents, prepping slide stacks or managing big, complicated spreadsheets.
Look at doctor's offices and hospitals. You certainly don't see any netbooks, but virtually everyone uses tablets and smartphones to record data, check charts, print prescriptions and communicate with colleagues. Netbook descendants are carried from room to room and office to office, raising productivity and efficiency.
The cloud overshadows netbooks
Tablets and smartphones derive a sizable part of their functionality by connecting to the Web and interacting with various services. It's the old client/server model, except now the devices can hook up to massive, totally integrated server systems over WiFi, 3G, 4G, LTE, Bluetooth and who knows what's next.
A great example is Siri on the iPhone or Google Voice Search on Androids. A little app resides on the device and listens for your voice. Your words are interpreted in the cloud, and the device takes some action, such as opening another application, initiating a phone call or text message, or going to a website.
In addition, the cloud also lets enterprises consolidate documents and files, so collaboration and backups are easy. With services such as Google Docs, users may never even have a copy of a document on any of their devices.
Netbooks didn't lend themselves to cloud operation because they never really had the connectivity, which is standard equipment on tablets and smartphones.
BYOD and BYOA take further steps to mobile computing
Bring your own device (BYOD) and bring your own applications (BYOA) programs are recent developments in the enterprise. Employees supply their own endpoints and programs needed to get their work done.
More on netbooks
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Some enterprises accept netbook devices
Notebooks vs. netbooks at a glance
Administrators have found that maintaining any kind of order has become monumentally more difficult with BYOD and the consumerization of IT.
Back in 1987, I brought my Toshiba T1100+ to work at Martin Marietta. I used it as an external serial console for some of my Unix servers. It wasn't a big deal for me or the company because I was the one managing those servers and the machine certainly didn't have an IP address.
BYOD and BYOA pose huge challenges to the organization today. With so much computing power and connectivity, whole departments have been created to minimize threats. Regulations require that sensitive data be retained and available for litigation and analysis.
Also, where does enterprise responsibility for data begin and end? Whose device and data is it anyway? We've come a long way, from the lowly netbook.
The netbook ghost will never leave
Like any technological development, the netbook had the potential to bring new efficiencies and profits to the organization. But it's not always to be.
The netbook was absolutely a necessary stage in computing evolution. It showed that ubiquitous, connected computing was useful and made money. The netbook ghost will live on in our tablets, smartphones and even the so-called Internet of Things.
About the author:
Robert Reilly is an independent consultant, writer and speaker serving clients in the private sector, small business and tech media. His analytical and "how-to" articles cover Linux and open source, the IoT, DIY and the Maker Movement and technology career development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.