One of my favorite parts of my job is evaluating new technologies and devices. While some might consider this activity hardly qualifying as “work,” recession be damned there seems to be a great surge in new devices that will soon impact enterprise computing from small businesses to the Fortune 100. One of these technologies is the Netbook, the small, low-cost computer touted by its manufacturers as a platform for consumer web-browsing and email.
I purchased models from Samsung and HP, and the most striking feature is that they are about 80% of what a $2000 “ultraportable” model from 2-3 years looked and felt like. Considering these are $300-400 machines at the retail level, that’s quite an accomplishment. All these machines ship with and run Windows XP quite happily, which is still the de rigueur enterprise standard. However I was rather surprised to find they managed Window 7 Ultimate with aplomb, and were exceptionally usable with Microsoft’s latest operating system and office suite. Certainly these are far more capable than an occasional email and web site at the consumer level.
So, we have some decent hardware that runs modern productivity software at a low cost, now what? It’s obvious that most corporate users do 95% of their computing work in exactly these types of applications, and a machine that can run an office suite, access the web and corporate ERP or CRM systems and do it cheaply are pretty compelling. Throw in an increasingly mobile workforce that appreciates a 3 pound machine for less than $300 in volume, and the bean counters are beaming. Why that’s all well and good, I think the Netbook is going to precipitate a change in enterprise and corporate computing that we’re already seeing at the consumer level. Rather than shifting to a pure “dumb terminal” model that has been suggested in the past where everything runs “in the cloud,” I think we’re going to see a hybrid of cloud computing and virtualization, creating a “smart terminal” of sorts.
Despite more than a decade of pundits proclaiming the end of client server computing, I don’t think we’ll see a return to pure dumb terminal computing, where the device on your desk or in your briefcase is a screen, keyboard and little else. Google and its ilk want us to believe we should do everything from email to word processing through a web browser and “in the cloud,” but at an enterprise level, a disconnected model is still very compelling. I still want to wade through my inbox and crank out a document or two on an international flight where there’s no connectivity, or in a remote location without WiFi, so we’re still going to need a local office suite. However for moderate use applications and with increasingly prevalent connectivity, shifting the “heavy hitters” like CRM, ERP and modeling to the cloud makes perfect sense.
Where Netbooks and virtualization enter the picture is disconnecting a users’ computing environment from the hardware. For many years, end-users might have a desktop at work, and perhaps a desktop or single laptop at home. Now, your average user has a personal and business laptop, and perhaps a couple of desktops or Netbooks at home, combined with a smart phone. They change computing devices based on mood, use and travel itinerary. With Netbooks, hardware becomes a cheap commodity, and I think we’ll soon see virtualization technology squarely targeting the enterprise end-user. Imagine that my work computing environment is a virtual machine that I can use on a shared desktop when I’m in the office, or my personal Netbook when I’m on the road. The company provides the computing environment and cloud or hosted application, and the user runs it on whatever hardware they see fit, swapping environments and hardware as needed. The company gets out of the business of providing, provisioning and managing end-user hardware, and the user accesses work and personal computing environments on the device they choose, when they choose it.
While the Netbook certainly is not critical to this transition, I believe small, cheap and capable hardware is going to get enterprises thinking about how they actually deploy and use computing at the user level, and we’re going to see some creative results.