Netbooks in the business: Do they make sense?

For field forces, the answer is clearly yes. For other users, the fit is less clear

The small size adds other advantages, notes Ryan Meyer, a field service business owner of a PC maintenance company. His employees have found the diminutive dimension to be a life-saver when they are stuck behind a server cabinet, cramped up behind their knees, and running diagnostics or checking out serial and model numbers. "You just pull them back there with you, and the long battery life is helpful, too," Meyer says.

Perhaps the least recognized benefit is found in the availability of standard operating systems rather than the proprietary OSes used in many field service handheld devices, notes Eric Openshaw, U.S. technology leader at the IT consultancy Deloitte: "They are easier to maintain, upgrade, and customize."

Familiarity with Windows or Linux means less of a learning curve for both IT and users. Plus, standardizing the hardware and the OS translates to lower development costs and faster turnaround time whether the IT department is doing the work in-house or paying a consultancy or vendor for customized application development.

Plus, the use of common OSes makes it easy for application developers to support netbooks in a big way, which should drive the netbook further and faster into business, especially for companies like UPS, says Openshaw.

Contrast that to a handheld device's requirements, notes Ron Purdhomme, vice president of practice development for inCode, a telecommunications consultancy. It takes a fair amount of coding and middleware to run a Motorola Symbol device (common in many field forces), and the same is true for Windows Mobile development.

Netbook as a basic productivity tool

If the stars line up correctly, there's another area where netbooks may earn a place in business: as basic systems for the many employees who don't work on intense spreadsheets or complex documents, use a fraction of Microsoft Office's capabilities, and spend as much time on e-mail and Web apps as anything else.

Most netbooks have three standard USB ports, an Ethernet port, and a PC card slot, and they take the same standard wireless cards to connect to the Internet as notebooks. There are no connectivity differences and thus no special management or security issues for IT when using a netbook remotely. Once the connection is made, hardware differences become invisible. At home or in the office, users can connect a keyboard and monitor to get around the ergonomics issue when working for long periods; on the road, they have an easier-to-carry system for light duties.

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