One possible future of mobile computing is on display in classrooms in Fresno, Calif., where the public school district has deployed 10,000 Hewlett-Packard Co. “netbooks” with an upgraded Cisco Systems Inc. wireless LAN.
While the term “netbook” has no formal definition, it typically applies to a class of mobile computers that are smaller and lighter than conventional laptops and have lower-resolution displays that are 7 to 11 inches in size. Netbooks, which are made by vendors such as HP, Asus, Acer and Dell, typically have small hard drives or none at all, and they rely on less-powerful CPUs than standard laptops. To some critics, that adds up to a crippled notebook PC.
But the best ones are extremely portable — they can be slipped into a large coat pocket — have almost-full-size QWERTY keyboards, feature screens that are vastly bigger than those of smartphones, and are inexpensive: less than $500 and sometimes much lower. Sales exploded last December and are expected to continue to be strong.
A few days ago, Kurt Madden, CTO for the Fresno Unified School District, watched a classroom of fifth graders working with HP Mini-Note 2133 netbook-class machines with 8.9-in. screens, nearly-full-size QWERTY keyboards, several of the Microsoft Office applications, Internet Explorer and precious little else.
Each student was creating a report on one of the U.S. states. Via the netbooks' integrated 802.11g Wi-Fi radio, they linked to a wireless LAN to access the Internet, surfing for statistics and other data, photographs, and even audio files of, for example, state birds chirping. They pulled all this into Microsoft Publish to create multimedia reports, which were then posted to their personal sites on the school's SharePoint server, where each report could be viewed by teachers.
“I would guess that 50% or more of the time they're on the netbook, they're accessing the Internet,” Madden says.
Although the Fresno students aren't yet carrying the netbooks around (generally, the devices are assigned to classrooms, where they're shared by students), they work in and through a pervasive wireless network: they're always connected. And Madden notes that the school's PCs now have fewer native applications than ever before, because so much of the processing, data, storage and applications are online. And that means that users need something much less than a full-blown PC to work, study, collaborate and entertain.
The online enterprise
That's a model that fits with corporate computing trends, according to analysts. Mobile users typically need access to resources on the corporate network, and increasingly to resources on the Web. Desktop virtualization, which centralizes desktop applications for more cost-effective management and improved security is a related trend that is, in effect, offloading tasks and applications that previously ran on PCs.
“These netbooks are comparable to a 2003 notebook” in performance, says Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group, a research firm that focuses on personal technology products. “People woke up and said, 'Well, that's good enough.'”
For some number of enterprise users, the portability and price of , netbooks will be compelling. But potential customers may want to wait another few months to buy one.
The most recent netbook introductions make some of the products seem almost indistinguishable from low-end traditional notebook PCs. Bigger screens, but none yet reaching 12 inches, bigger hard drives, more weight for longer-running high-capacity batteries and so on, and price tags routinely well over $500. But even so, if you need a notebook's raw power or screen size or keyboard, you won't get it on a netbook.
“Netbooks as currently specified are not capable of full, rich multimedia performance,” says Andrew Borg, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. “The CPUs are not multicored or multithreading. They're underpowered. Any kind of video processing is beyond them. Unfortunately, these are often requirements in the enterprise.”
But 12 months from now, the landscape will be dramatically different, he says, starting late in 2009. “We look forward to another round of netbooks coming that will be much less likely to disappoint enterprise users,” Borg says.
New CPUs — including new versions of Intel's Atom CPU but also upcoming ARM-based rivals such as Qualcomm's SnapDragon processor — that offer much higher clock speeds and multi-threading will boost performance and cut power demands. Solid-state drives will keep dropping in price. And Windows 7, specifically tuned for netbooks, will be available. “A device with this profile, for under $400, could take off like wildfire,” Borg says.
“Wildfire” is also a good word to describe the intensity of the speculation that Apple will introduce a Mac netbook.
The next generation of netbooks will create a more truly mobile user experience, says Jeff Chu, mobile computing product manager for ARM Holdings in Cambridge, England, which provides the intellectual property that is realized in silicon products from more than 200 chip companies. The new ARM-based chips will be highly integrated, minimizing or eliminating boot-up waits, and extending battery lifetimes to all day or even several days, according to Chu.
Netbook challenges, trade-offs
“There is an enterprise play for netbooks, but it does have some interesting problems,” says Mort Rosenthal, CEO of Enterprise Mobile, in Watertown, Mass., a Microsoft-backed company that specializes in large-scale mobile deployments based on Windows and Windows Mobile clients.
While most current netbooks run Windows XP (see related story), which Microsoft has kept alive for the netbook market because Vista performed dismally on them, many of the them run XP Home, “which is suboptimal for the enterprise,” Rosenthal says.
Enterprises should look for XP Professional until Windows 7 is released. Microsoft made unplanned “engineering investments” in Windows 7 specifically for netbooks. Among other things, these efforts were aimed at reducing the OS footprint, speeding boot-up and shut-down times and enhancing batter life and multimedia capabilities.
For now, corporate customers can expect less configuration flexibility with netbooks than with notebooks, until vendors are willing and able to deliver hardware and software builds targeted at the enterprise market.
A number of the first netbooks were Linux-based and Linux machines still hold a fair share of the market, but experts say that number could shrink. Recently, there has been speculation that the Android operating system, pushed by Google Inc. and the Open Handset Alliance, would be offered on future netbooks.
In response to a query, a Google spokesman would only say that Android “was designed from the beginning to scale downward to feature phones and upward to MID and netbook-style devices.” HP is reportedly testing it. But Acer executives recently said that Android isn't ready yet for this market.
Netbooks aimed at the enterprise need to do more about device security, according to Enderle. They should include a cryptoprocessor based on the Trusted Platform Module specification for securely creating, storing and managing encryption keys on a device, and some kind of biometric reader or similar access security, he says.
Windows XP and future Windows 7 devices should, by definition, be able to participate in Windows management and security infrastructures.
Enderle argues that Intel and Microsoft artificially are constraining netbook screen sizes. But an HP executive says it's really all about a complex set of trade-offs. “When you go to a bigger screen, you add more weight, and often more cost,” says Carol Hess-Nickels, director of worldwide business notebook marketing at HP. “We want to stay at a nice low-end price point.”
HP's recently introduced Mini 2140 Notebook PC has 10.1-in. screen, weighs 2.6 lbs., and starts at $449. The 2230 model, the company's least expensive full notebook, with a 12.1-in. screen, starts at $999.
All wireless, all the time
Though most netbooks have an Ethernet jack, they're really designed as wireless devices, sometimes with integrated 802.11 Wi-Fi (with 802.11n becoming more common), Bluetooth and a cellular radio. Some analysts expect that models with WiMAX support to be introduced.
For enterprises, the cellular option is fraught with problems, even as carriers eagerly embrace netbooks. AT&T just announced a special offer of a $49 netbook to users who sign up for a two-year data contract. But carriers are lagging in creating a smooth activation process, says Enterprise Mobile's Rosenthal.
Enterprise Mobile bought two netbooks, which he won't name, both with embedded cellular cards. In one case, the manufacturer was to start the activation process and then pass it over to the carrier. “That pass didn't work,” Rosenthal says. When the user called the carrier to confirm the contract agreement, the carrier representative “didn't even know what to do with the call,” he says. In the second case, the netbook was bought at Radio Shack, where a staffer worked diligently and hard. But the process still took two and a half hours to complete.
Carriers will need to invest in streamlining these practices and improving support for their enterprise customers.