The enterprise netbook: soon, but not yet

18 Dec 2008

The netbook bandwagon is rolling.

It's a matter of time before it rolls into the enterprise, just like instant messaging, SMS, social networks and other tech that began in the consumer space.

The netbook is a low-powered, basic-functionality laptop, typically running on an Intel 1.6GHz Atom chip and with a 10-inch display, Wi-Fi and a small hard disk or flash and weighing a kilo or so.

It's certainly moving in the stores. Netbooks accounted for 5% of all laptops shipped in Asia (ex. Japan) in 2008, according to IDC. That is expected to double in 2009.

The segment, which was born a year ago courtesy of Taiwan OEM Asus, seems to be an unintended consequence of Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child initiative.

Negroponte may not have hit his well-publicized $100 target, but by taking it below $200 he's made people aware that for $1,500 or more they are paying for over-sized devices with a lot of bloatware. It's also dovetailed with the quiet efforts of those who have pushed for smaller, "right-sized" end-user devices.

In the wake of Asus's Eee has come rival Taiwanese products MSI Wind, Acer Aspire One, plus offerings from the Samsung, Dell, HP and the other usual suspects.

The prices range from $290 to $560, although the main vendors have engaged in an energetic burst of price cutting recently, as if cannibalizing their top-end wasn't enough.

The device becomes attractive for businesses in the cloud era, where the heavy lifting and storage can be done by the enterprise data center.

A lot of the early netbooks ran on Linux, prompting the predictable response from the OS market leader. So you can easily buy a netbook with XP or even Vista. Not everyone thinks that's necessary. The Economist has suggested that for many users, "the basic, free software shipped with a netbook will be quite enough."

All of this tells us that the stars are aligning for the deployment of netbooks in the enterprise.

On paper, the business case would seem to be a no-brainer. But if cost alone that mattered, enterprises everywhere would be running on Ubuntu.

Enterprise-grade netbooks will need to offer reliability and security as well the robustness to meet the needs of individual organizations, with or without a cloud configuration.

For sure, IT groups have some way to go before they are routinely comfortable with cloud IT.

And Netbooks have some way to go before they reach that less-definable zone where a CFO feels comfortable in signing off on the business case.

For that reason, despite the recession-friendly prices, the netbook bandwagon won't be breaking the speed limit next year. But it's definitely coming down the enterprise pike.

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