The idea of light-weight, low-cost, but very powerful laptops designed for a smaller feature set than traditional laptops has been around for a decade or so. But all indications are that something has changed in the market place. Due to a convergence of many factors, netbooks are growing in sales. These factors include the continual improvement in wireless speeds, the more widespread availability of wifi, the continued drop in cost of hardware, the continued increase in performance of open source operating systems and open source applications, the unstoppable move to more thin-client solutions, and the dramatically increased capabilities of cloud computing services (including the entire web2.0 megatrend and of course the continued innovations of Google in the cloud computing and online applications space).
I just did a few searches on Amazon and Bestbuy for netbooks devices, and pulled up entries for small notebooks like the Acer Aspire One, an 8.9-inch mini laptop that runs Linux Lite and sells for under $300.00. It has plenty of capability and is very lightweight. It comes loaded with applications, including open source office automation packages (I think I would want to download the most recent version of open office if I purchased this). It also comes with a built in camera and is ready for high end video chat.
Will I buy one? There are clearly some of these in my future, I just don’t know when. I have a MacBook and I really like it for everything I need in a laptop. I use it around the house and on travel. And, although it is over a year old now, it doesn’t need replacement. When it does, however, I’m going to be asking myself why I would want to pay $1000 more for a Mac instead of a couple hundered for a Netbook. So much of what I do I do on the cloud anyway, and the many things I do locally can be done using the free Open Office.
If we assume the same sort of trades are being considered by other buyers, a conclusion starts to emerge. Netbooks are going to be a very disruptive force in the market.
And what is the market saying so far about this trend? Acer is reporting huge success with their netbooks approach, their sales have been growing significantly. They just reported a 78.8 percent growth rate over the same quarter in 2007. And this is during a huge market downturn. HP and Dell are reporting unit sales growth of 13.5 percent and 10.7 percent, respectively. Apple is just about flat.
If you are an enterprise CTO, what should you do with this information? For one, you should consider how to use laptops/netbooks like these in your organization. If done right, you can enhance the security of your enterprise by moving more of your data and applications to secure clouds, and you can also add security features to your netbooks and field a significant enhancement to your security posture. And, since the cost of these devices is far less than traditional laptops you can equip more of your workforce and save money at the same time, which is a very virtuous thing in this economic environment.
Note: I’ve previously written about several devices that qualify as netbooks, including:
Thin Client Laptops: Functionality, Security, Mobility A review of high end, enterprise quality wireless stateless thin clients using the Sun Microsystems approach;
The Future Is Changing Again A review of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative.
I also recommend a recent article at Economist.com called Small is Beautiful.