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Netbooks - Suitable for Professional Use?

written by: Brian Nelson•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 5/19/2011

Are netbooks the next evolution in the life of the professional in need of mobile computing, or are they just a way to provide cheap Internet access to those who are most interested in their current "status"?

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    Ultra-Portables, Laptops, and Desktops, oh, my!

    When laptop computers first arrived on the scene, it was mostly professionals who bought them. Indeed, they were the only ones who could justify the much larger expense for a portable computer. Netbooks seemed like a passing fad just a year ago, but now professionals are asking what are these netbook things all about anyway, and where did they come from?

    There was a time, when a professional’s only option was a desktop computer. Portable computers were a fantasy, in fact, many regular computers took two people and a cart or dolly to move from one place to another, and just forget about the monitor. Then came laptop computers, portable computers that could be held in the lap.

    Professionals of all colors flocked to these portable computers, though most of them continued to use them on desks, tables, chairs, filing cabinets, or anything else they could find, using their lap as a last resort. Portable meant that it was portable enough to be moved from one office to another, not that you could take it everywhere with you.

    With useful synchronization between computers still a few years away, many opted for high-powered laptop computers. That way, you could take your computer with you to Cincinnati on a business trip without worrying about copying files from your regular computer, and when you got back to Denver, you still had everything you worked on while you were out of town.

    As the laptop market matured, there were two options in the realm of high-end laptop computing. On one end, there were laptops whose power and features rivaled desktop computers. These laptops were primarily the tools of choice for professionals with no other computer; it was both their main computer AND their portable computer.

    On the other end of the spectrum were super-light laptop computers with high-end, high-cost, low-power, low-heat components that permitted the laptop to be carried everywhere, whether to meetings, or to grab a cup of coffee with a friend or colleague. They were slickly marketed by showing how they could fit in a manila envelope or disappear into a pad folio.

    In between these two high-end segments, professionals who could not justify an expenditure in the thousands of dollars for a portable computer got heavier less powerful laptops. If it took 8.6 lbs, then so be it. While these laptops had enough power for professional uses, their weight inspired plenty of business in the rolling briefcase industry and a boom in the laptop bag business as well.

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    Netbooks, Little, Low-Power, Different – Or, Can My Phone Do That?

    Just before the first netbooks burst onto the scene, a confluence of technologies in the professional world had begun to shift the portable computing paradigm. The first was the re-emergence of client-server computing where file storage and processing power came increasingly from servers. This reduced the need for both disk space and powerful processors on the computers professionals used, including laptops.

    Then Starbucks put high-speed wireless Internet access in every major city (and plenty of minor cities) across America, professionals everywhere whose jobs did not rely on intensive graphics or processing became content with lighter less powerful laptops.

    In fact, some professionals began to ditch their laptops altogether, opting instead for hand-held organizers like those made by Palm or email devices like those made by Blackberry. When the line between devices began to blur and professionals were able to keep their contacts, schedule, phone numbers, and email on something that fit in their pocket, many asked, what else is there that can’t wait until I get back to the office?

    The answer, it seems, was a keyboard – and a bigger screen.

    While a Palm is a great gadget to store and retrieve 5,000 contacts, it is a TERRIBLE gadget to input them on. While a Blackberry is a great device to type a quick answer to your boss’ question about when the meeting is next week, it is a terrible device to review the 23-page spreadsheet with next week’s numbers on it.

    Devices like Windows Mobile phones, iPhones, and Android phones showed a device that fits in your pocket can be used to access the Internet for information like phone numbers, when the museum is open, and if the Broncos won last night. But, every one of them is still an awful way to determine if the eleven pages of numbers released by the FTC this morning are going to alter the company’s long-range projections.

    It is here that professionals, teenagers, college students, housewives, and everyone in between starts to ask, “What if I could get something small like my phone, but with a keyboard and screen like my laptop?”

    And the Netbook Revolution was born.

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    Netbooks for Professionals Who Wish Their Phone Did More

    The allure of a low-cost lightweight computer that can get online at any coffee shop is obvious. The question is whether the abilities and performance afforded by a netbook are sufficient for the average professional.

    The history of portable computing and the birth of the netbook provides a answer. For the professional looking for a device that can be more powerful and usable than their PHONE, a netbook is likely to be a very welcome solution.

    However, for the professional looking for a device that can be like their computer only smaller and cheaper, the answer is more muddled. While many computing functions have been outsourced to servers or online “cloud” resources, there are still many specialized utilities that must run locally. In addition, the small screen size, particularly the height, as well as tiny, unusual keyboards, can render some applications virtually unusable regardless of how well they perform from a processing perspective.

    Next, we look at what netbooks will need to offer to be of use to the professional user, and finally, which netbooks hold the most promise for the various types of professionals.

Netbooks for Professional Users

Sure netbooks are a fun way to send tweets to Twitter or update your Facebook page, and maybe even play some games or do some chatting with friends. But, is there enough power and function to be a professional tool for serious users?
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