Netbooks worm their way into businesses

Netbook systems are primarily seen as consumer devices. But the pint-size PCs are starting to find a place at some companies.

When ADNH Compass, a 17,000-employee catering company based in Abu Dhabi, decided to give its branch managers new PCs late last year, it chose Acer's Aspire One netbooks instead of full-size laptops.

"The users who are not that computer-literate were excited that something like this was being given to them," said Graham Smith, ERP software manager at ADNH Compass. But it was Smith himself who pushed for the purchase of the low-cost, downsized Aspire One systems. "Both our operations managers and logistics operators are always on the move, so it makes sense to have something light and portable," he explained.

Now Smith is working to enable users of the 2.5-lb. netbooks to access the company's Web-based SAP applications via 3G wireless connections. He said that will let the branch managers at ADNH Compass, which operates throughout the Middle East, do month-end inventory counts in real time as they walk through product storage areas.

Early adopters such as ADNH Compass are showing that some of the conventional wisdom about netbooks - that they're too fragile for on-the-go corporate users, too tiny for doing real work and too underpowered to run business applications - may not be so wise after all.

Of course, the conventional wisdom a year ago was that netbooks weren't ready for consumers, either. But 16 million were sold worldwide in 2008, according to ABI Research, which predicts that 39 million netbooks will be sold this year and that unit sales will reach 139 million by 2013.

Netbooks such as the Aspire One and Asustek Computer's Eee PC typically have smaller screens and keyboards and use less powerful processors than conventional laptops and notebook PCs do. But they're also lighter and usually less expensive, with prices often starting at under US$400.

By a wide margin, netbooks have primarily been sold to home users thus far. But they can do anything a traditional work computer does - at least, from the perspective of Stan Jamrog, a network security instructor at Holyoke Community College.

Jamrog brings a Linux-based Eee PC 1000 that he bought himself to HCC, connects it to the school's network and does his work on the netbook. "No one has scoffed yet," said Jamrog, who added that he and a full-time security professor at the college are thinking about pushing to require students to have netbooks.

Most PC vendors have avoided marketing netbooks to businesses, partly to avoid cannibalizing sales of higher-priced laptops, and partly out of fear that they might be laughed out of the offices of IT managers.

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Eric Lai

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