Netbooks in the business: Do they make sense?

For field forces, the answer is clearly yes. For other users, the fit is less clear

There's still the issue of supporting big apps like Microsoft Office, but as Google and others continue to put productivity applications in the cloud, the performance barrier could disappear -- assuming these cloud productivity apps can truly challenge Office.

Even if such cloud-based productivity apps don't end up displacing Office, several Office alternatives would work well for most "casual" business users -- particularly Lotus Symphony, as a previous test discovered.

Netbooks as notebook killers? Not likely

Is the netbook going to replace the laptop? There are several reasons why this is unlikely.

Their very advantage in field service -- their small size -- means that users can't do much with them other than fill out a form, take an order, look up the availability of a replacement part, or check e-mail.

Ramon Ray, author of "Technology Solutions for Growing Businesses," is a netbook user, but he says its capabilities are limited by screen and keyboard size. Ray says he takes it with him on short day trips and even on one-nighters. "But if I'm going away for two or three days, it's too small."

Ray explains that he is a touch typist and that the small keyboard slows him down; also, he gets eyestrain from the 12-inch screen: "After 30 minutes, it's not going to happen."

Ray kids that you wouldn't want to run a CAD/CAM system on a netbook. Microsoft agrees, and it's not kidding. "A netbook is about consumption not creation," says James DeBragga, general manager for Windows Consumer Marketing at Microsoft. Simple document editing tasks are fine, but DeBragga says you wouldn't want to work on a complex spreadsheet on a netbook. If you're like the average user with 5 to 10 windows open simultaneously, you'll find that navigating among the applications and tackling serious business tasks is difficult, he says.

Not only is the screen small, but the keyboard is three-quarter size, so typing will be harder for most people. From an ergonomics standpoint, netbooks are not big enough to comfortably use over an extended period of time and not small enough to put in your pocket, notes Ken Dulaney, a senior analyst at Gartner.

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Ephraim Schwartz

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