Portable and affordable, the trendy "netbook" is all the rage among computer makers and the consumers snatching them up in droves -- so much, in fact, this young category is estimated to make up more than 20 percent of the entire laptop category by next year.
But are these tiny Wi-Fi-enabled netbooks -- designed primarily for Web surfing, e-mail, and word processing -- ideal for running your business? What's lost or gained in the transition?
If you recognize the limitations of these scaled-down PCs, a netbook might be all you and your staff need to remain productive on the go, experts say.
Price and size matter
"A netbook is just a laptop whose pivotal axis is price," says Michael Gartenberg, vice president at Interpret LLC, a market research firm based in London, New York, and Los Angeles. "Basically you need to ask yourself if the netbook has enough horsepower to manage your business, and if so, you can save some money." However, if you or your staff need to run memory-intensive programs or require larger screens or a full-size keyboard, you might want to steer clear of this category, he says.
The lack of an optical drive might be an issue for some, Gartenberg adds, but an inexpensive external drive -- that can be shared among employees to install software -- might be all that's required. "Beyond that, many computer users today simply don't need a DVD drive," he says.
Steve Hilton, vice president for enterprise and small and mid-sized business research at the Boston-based Yankee Group, says along with a relatively inexpensive price tag, netbooks offer two other advantages for mobile workers: "They are fairly easy to replace if lost or damaged -- in fact most suppliers can easily ship an exact duplicate very quickly. Plus, an IT department tends to like [netbooks] as they're easy to manage since they have very few applications resident on the device."
Netbooks might carry few applications because many small and mid-sized businesses are moving towards "cloud computing," which allows online employees to securely access programs and files on a remote server, as opposed to physically carrying sensitive data on the road. This trend is on the rise thanks to ubiquitous Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity. In addition, more devices are available -- such as netbooks and smartphones -- with limited local memory. Much of the software is Web-based, too, therefore not requiring one particular operating system over another.
"Applications in the cloud are not loaded on a netbook because applications are processing and hard-disk hogs," explains Hilton. "Netbooks are light on both processing and hard-disk space, which is one of the reasons why they're priced fairly inexpensively, so in order to get the value from a netbook, applications in the cloud are essential."
Looked at another way, "a Prius and a Boxster have different purposes," continues Hilton, comparing netbooks with automobiles. "If you need a car that sips gasoline, drives your family of four to the mall, and keeps your auto insurance premiums low, your choice is obvious."
Gartenberg, however, cautions those who rely too heavily on remote applications for business. "The problem with the cloud is that it's not always available," he says. "There is this notion that everything will be delivered via browser, but it's more of a coexistence [with locally stored programs]. One solution isn't killing the other."
And they're getting better
Just two years ago, a netbook might be limited by a Linux operating system, a petite 7-inch display, and just 4GB of Flash (SSD) memory. Fast-forward to today, however, and there is far more selection, including a Windows o/s, bigger screens (up to 12-inches), a near full-size QWERTY keyboard, a minimum 160GB hard drive and better processors, such as Intel Atom chips.
As far as security goes, Gartenberg says you must treat netbooks like a laptop. "You want to be cautious about what information is on the netbook," he says, "ensure everything is password-protected, and despite its small size, try to remember not to leave it at a coffee shop or in a taxicab."