Technology

Why I Don't Get Netbooks


These stripped-down computers make little sense for small business owners. They're too small, lack power, and won't save much in IT expenses

There are a lot of things in this world that I just don't get. In one year, a well-known company sells 40 million books and videos and publishes 94 magazines for 8 million subscribers—then files Chapter 11. I don't get it. A talented quarterback idiotically causes harm to a few dogs, serves his time, comes back to the NFL and wants to try to rehabilitate himself—and people freak out. I don't get that, either. A whiny housewife with eight kids and a cheating husband appears on the cover of People magazine more times than I can count and co-hosts The View. I definitely don't get that.

You know what else I don't get? Netbooks. Sure, they may work for kids or as marketing gimmicks for wireless service providers such as AT&T (T) and Verizon Wireless. But for a small business? No way.

I'm not the only small business owner befuddled by netbooks. So is a friend of mine who runs IT for a maker of metal-fabricating equipment. He didn't want me to use his name or that of his company, so I'll just call him "Bob." His company is a typical small business. It employs about 60 people, of whom about six are sales guys spread around the country. Bob doesn't get the whole netbooks thing, either.

For starters, netbooks are just too small. The most popular brands have keyboards that are at least 10% smaller than laptop keyboards, which aren't so big to begin with. Screen sizes of the most common devices are usually around 10 inches, too. This is a problem for Bob's company. It's one thing for road warriors to fumble with a BlackBerry between meetings and while waiting for planes. But getting a bunch of aging sales guys with thick fingers and failing eyesight to squint for hours on end into a tiny screen while tapping on a keyboard made for a kid simply "ain't gonna happen," Bob says.

With Smartphones, Who Needs Netbooks?

Nor can netbooks ever serve as primary devices for most small business people. Besides the size issue, there's a power problem: Their processors are slower than the typical laptop and most only take up to 1GB of memory. Technology freaks live in a dreamlike state where everything's "up in the cloud" and all you need is a Web connection to solve all of your problems. They don't get it. In the world of many small businesses like Bob's, the only thing that truly solves problems is a bottle of Jack Daniels. My bet is that for many small businesses, netbooks will only make matters worse.

The tech industry wants IT guys like Bob to regard a netbook as a secondary device for his employees. Yet netbooks don't make getting online any easier than a laptop does. You still have to connect to the Internet and deal with logins, slow routers, and dead zones. The boot-up time is no different. The guys at Bob's company can all get their e-mails and make calls and send text messages from a smartphone. They can even look up flight information or football scores. Why would they need a netbook as a secondary device?

I also don't get the weight thing. I'm a lightweight at 140 pounds, and even I can lug around a Dell (DELL) Inspiron. Sure, a netbook would be lighter. But only by a couple of pounds. Most of the sales guys I know eat burgers as big as that. Besides, laptops keep getting lighter and lighter. And now I hear there's a whole new round of ultraportable ones on the way. So weight won't sell me on netbooks.

Today's Netbooks: XP—Not Windows 7

I also don't get why small businesses would want to buy a device running Windows XP Home, which is the most common operating system in these things. XP Home lacks security and networkability features that other versions of XP have. Users can't join a domain and IT departments can't control updates. Wait a second—why am I even talking about XP anyway? That OS is as old as the pizza lying around my kid's room. It's obvious that once Microsoft (MSFT) Windows 7 comes out, the tech world will bid an abrupt farewell to XP. Who's going to support those netbooks?

Notably, I hear that the introduction of Windows 7 might not be such a bad thing for netbook lovers. I'm told future generations of netbooks will run a version of Windows 7 that will make them faster, more secure, and better networked. Is this not an additional reason why today's netbooks on Best Buy's (BBY) shelves will soon be obsolete?

It's not as if netbooks are so much less expensive, either. I just visited TigerDirect, where I like to buy computer stuff. There, I found a Toshiba (6502.T) netbook offered for $350. It has a gig of RAM, a 1.66Ghz processor, a 10.1-in. screen and runs Windows XP Home. On the same site, I can buy a brand-new Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) 550 laptop with a 2.0Ghz processor, a gig of ram, Windows Vista Home—and a 15.4-in. screen. The price? $350. More power, more screen, later operating system. Oh, and if I wanted to buy a refurbished Dell Latitude with about the same specs and a 14-in. screen, that would be $329. Even less.

I don't get how a convicted terrorist serving a life sentence for blowing up a plane full of innocent people over Scotland is released to his family on compassionate grounds. I don't get the whole Bob Dylan thing. I'm still not getting Jon & Kate Plus 8. And I may never get netbooks for a small business.

Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsize businesses. Marks is the author of four best-selling small business books and writes the popular "Penny Pincher's Almanac" syndicated column. He frequently speaks to business groups on penny-pinching topics. More penny-pinching advice from Marks can be found at www.quickerbetterwiser.com.

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