Netbooks in the enterprise: Get ready

It's not too early to determine policies and standards

Netbooks in the enterprise are coming, some observers believe. And whether it takes a year or five for netbooks to catch on in Corporate America, it behooves IT managers to get ready sooner rather than having to clean up a mess later on.

Remember, many IT managers initially refused to accept PCs and, later, iPhones for enterprise use. Employees demanded they reconsider and brought the devices in anyway. That scenario could well play out with netbooks, some believe.

Chris Neal, vice president and head of the technology practice for market-research firm Chadwick Martin Bailey in Boston, said that the IT executives his firm has surveyed are "split" on the notion of whether netbooks will make serious inroads into Corporate America. Of the 158 IT professionals his firm recently polled, 25% said netbooks will likely remain a consumer phenomenon, while 21% said the devices will be widely deployed in companies.

So far, around 20% of respondents have deployed netbooks, but on a 'limited basis," Neal said. Although the devices are popular with on-the-road professionals, "they don't have enough horsepower to do local processing," he explained. And with laptops typically priced at only around $US200 more than netbooks, corporate buyers are more likely to spend the additional money for a fuller-featured machine, he said.

Slowly making their way

In fact, barriers to netbook adoption are currently the rule for large companies. Hewlett-Packard Co. makes the Mini 2140 netbook. But a corporate spokesperson said that HP's internal IT department does not support or issue netbooks.

Standard IT department objections are around netbooks' consumer operating systems -- Windows 7 Starter Edition in the majority of cases -- that don't connect to corporate networks, and inadequate security. Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, based in San Jose, Calif., suggested that 75% of enterprises have policies demanding TPM (Trusted Platform Module) and biometrics in new laptops. These mandates effectively block the adoption of all current netbooks.

James Brehm, emerging-wireless analyst for Frost & Sullivan in San Antonio, has investigated several netbook pilot projects in large companies, but none he's followed has grown to a larger deployment. "Companies are saying absolutely not, but IT directors are open to new things to help lower costs. The netbook rise coincided with the decline in the economy. This created markets where large companies took a look."

His theory: the pilots are too new to make any real inroads into corporate IT yet.

Maulik Pandya, Dell's senior planning manager for commercial notebooks, predicts netbooks could capture around 5% of enterprise sales -- machines that would have otherwise been laptops. But Enderle disagrees, suggesting that if end-users had their druthers, netbooks would far outpace this 5% mark.

"Small portable computers for less than $US400 is where the market should be," Enderle said. "Portability and the price point really tear up the laptop. Many vendors don't want to build a strong corporate netbook model because they don't want to pirate their laptop lines."

In other words, corporate laptops are still far more than $1,000 in most cases, so a $400 netbook makes a strong financial pitch, even after changing the OS at company expense.

Any critical missing features, such as TPM and biometric support, will show up on netbooks when the time is right, said Enderle. "If a customer went to netbook manufacturers with a large purchase order and asked for TPM or biometrics, the suppliers would see that as a trend and add the features."

Pilots in progress

These restrictions haven't stopped some early adopters from implementing pilot projects. Allen Gwinn, senior director and chief technologist for the Edwin L. Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, said next year's new purchases at SMU will trend strongly toward netbooks and away from laptops.

Gwinn's IT group supports the faculty, staff, and network infrastructure -- but not the students -- at SMU Cox. Each school at SMU handles its own technology independently, and Gwinn said he has the only netbook pilot underway at SMU. He's using the Dell Latitude 2100, mostly because of its price tag.

"I have a group of 'guinea pigs' using netbooks now," said Gwinn, who characterized the number as a handful. "Next year they'll be much more broadly deployed. We're finding uses for netbooks that laptops can't satisfy."

For one thing, the small size of netbooks gives them a considerable portability advantage. "One of the faculty travels to China quite a bit," said Gwinn. "I gave her a netbook in a clear pouch, so it goes through airport security faster. She takes it places she couldn't take her laptop before, because she throws the netbook in her purse where before she struggled with the laptop case. Her laptop will never go on another trip with her."

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