Considering NetBooks for Small Business

There really is not any question about whether or not NetBooks will be an important tool for businesses of all sizes – they will be.  The upsides to NetBooks are too big to overlook: highly portable, generally more rugged that laptop counterparts due to size, light weight, easier to store and transport and mostly quite inexpensive compared to traditional laptops.  There are exceptions to any rule but the prototypical NetBook is dramatically smaller than a traditional laptop, weighs only one to two pounds (under a kilogram) and often costs no more than seventy percent as much as a laptop (any price comparison is massively subjective for obvious reasons.)

The question is not whether or not NetBooks are a good idea, but whether or not the NetBook market is ready for the enterprise (or, in our case, the SMB.)  While the idea of NetBooks has been around for quite some time that realization of the market has only begun to take effect within the past two years.  The NetBook was originally developed by Psion in 2000 but they exited the market in 2003.  The next big player was the United Nations with the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) which was an extremely low cost, ruggedized, Linux-based NetBook available for just $199USD.  With the development of the OLPC and the ecosystem of suppliers and developers that it fostered the low-cost, portable Internet device market was set to explode.

The big news for normal consumers came in 2007 when Asus, a major Taiwanese manufacturer famous for their high-quality motherboards, released their EEE PC line of NetBooks and, later, NetTops.  The EEE PC proved to be a major hit with consumers because of its low price tag, attractice looks and size.  Once the market was identified many manufactures jumped in with top-tier manufacturers like Acer, Lenovo, Dell and HP finally in the market now as well albeit generally from their consumer divisions and not from their commercial divisions.

Today we are in a rapidly maturing consumer NetBook market.  This means that NetBooks are well established, widely available and stable but, thus far, only in configurations designed for consumer use.  This presents our first barrier when considering these devices for the workplace.

With only rare exception, NetBooks ship with either consumer versions of Microsoft Windows (i.e. XP Home, Vista Home) or with non-enterprise versions of Linux (i.e. Linpus, Mandriva.)  To be sure, there are a few machines that ship with appropriately enterprise class operating systems like Vista Business or SUSE Linux but mostly the operating system that you find on the NetBooks are not the same as you would require in your business.  (Many niche NetBook manufactures do ship with Ubuntu or Fedora which are acceptable to many businesses but these are rare as well.)

In some cases, such as the very popular Acer Aspire One, it is quite easy for an IT department to establish their own operating system image and to apply it to the NetBook.  This is hardly a cost effective approach for a small shop to take, however.  This is only an effective approach under very specific circumstances or for very large orgazations who will be rolling out a large number of identically imaged machines and can spread the cost out over the group.

In the case of the Acer Aspire One we have a very well built unit that runs either Linpus Linux (a derivative of Fedora 8) or Windows XP Home.  Windows Home editions are not able to be integrated into business environments so we can rule out that option completely.  The cost of obtaining an additional XP Pro license would be very prohibitive on hardware that is so inexpensive.

The Linpus model is significantly less expensive than the Windows XP Home model and can be outfitted with a custom build of Fedora 10 replacing the including system at no additional external expense.  This does require a rather knowledgable Linux engineer to do and takes many hours to perfect and test.  Most likely a few days of labor at a minimum.  Only large shops with good internal Linux expertise or smaller shops with IT outsourcing partners with the necessary expertise should attempt to go down this path as it leaves you completely without any form of vendor support.  It also requires your IT department to monitor and support an additional operating system image unless you have already standardized on Fedora – which is not very common.  There are other options, such as installing OpenSUSE or an Ubuntu variant but these require additional work as Fedora is used to create the Linpus base and installs so easily onto the device.

Using Linux-based NetBooks often presents another problem.  On a normal corporate desktop running Linux it is most common to find either KDE or Gnome running as the desktop.  These are the two most popular, full featured desktop environments for the UNIX platforms and, to most users, it is the choice of KDE or Gnome that establishes the familiarity with the environment and not the underlying operating system.  Because of this, users who have used KDE on SUSE Linux can often be switched to KDE on PC-BSD without the user even realizing that the operating system has changed (Linux to FreeBSD.)  But NetBooks are often underpowered when it comes to running these heavy desktops and so alternatives are generally recommended.  Most commonly today we see XFCE chosen as a lightweight desktop environment alternative but even lighter options exist such as IceWM.  These environments can make NetBooks very usable instead of being slow and cumbersome but they do cause users to face potentially unfamiliar interfaces that can lead to additional support needs and possibly even training.

Having NetBooks available for a certain class of highly mobile or continuously on-call personnel can make a lot of sense.  The advantages are very real and, while some users are put off by the small screens and keyboards and dislike the lack of high-performance hardware, many users adore the portability and easy of use of these small devices.  If having a NetBook makes the difference between staff being able to work or having to disconnect from the office then the NetBooks will easily pay for themselves.

For most businesses I feel that we are still in a phase of early-adoption when it comes to NetBooks.  The hardware itself is well tested and widely available but the software is mostly not ready at this time.  In the next two years I expect that we will see a lot of advances in the market, especially as AMD and NVidia are expected to begin entering the market in force during this time allow with other potential players who currently have had very little input to the market such as Freescale.

Currently, and for the near future, businesses looking to NetBooks need to almost across the board make a commitment to using Linux rather than Windows.  The Windows operating system is just not ready to handle the NetBook market and will likely wait until NetBooks catch up to modern laptops in performance before really looking to enter the enterprise NetBook market.  During the mean time, however, alternative architectures, such as PowerPC, ARM and MIPS, are being experimented with within the market and their adoption poses a technological barrier to running Windows on these devices.  Microsoft may find that the NetBook could be a critical loss of market for them as Linux vendors like Novell, Red Hat and Canonical will see it as an inroad into the enterprise desktop space.  It is not coincidence that Red Hat has just announced its official return to competiting in this market.

At this particular time I feel that it is good to begin investigating NetBooks and seeing how they may or may not fit into your business IT strategy.  Most small businesses will find, like their large enterprise cousins, that the NetBook is inexpensive to obtain but expensive to support in a corporate environment.  This will be changing rapidly as the NetBook format becomes more common and business begin to clamour more and more to get these provided, in business-ready configurations, from the top vendors.

One thought on “Considering NetBooks for Small Business”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *