Tech Watch: Business appetite grows for mobile thin clients in Net PC form

Most Net PCs or netbooks now sell to consumers or SMBs, but mainstream business adoption is picking up.

With thin desktop clients capturing more enterprise wallet share, no one should be surprised that the format is increasingly going mobile in a category variously referred to as Net PCs or netbooks.

The bulk of these devices today sell now to consumers or small-business owners looking for a no-frills, lighter, cheaper laptop. But as Software as a Service (SaaS) applications and cloud computing creep into mainstream usage, larger businesses will take a closer look, they say, especially since notebook shipments now top desktop shipments nearly every quarter, according to IDC.

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"We have definitely seen thin clients and thin computing on the rise," said Rory Sanchez, president of SLPowers, a value-added reseller and managed services provider in West Palm Beach, Fla. "More and more businesses are seeing the advantages of going to application hosting and what is almost considered to be cloud computing. More and more, as these Net PCs mature, they will grow into legitimate business endpoints."

First things first. For the purposes of this article, we've focused on mobile expressions of Net PCs. These devices come with some connectivity option, usually Wi-Fi, and they target applications such as Web browsing or email. While "PC" suggests desktop use, the hottest form factors are somewhere between a smartphone and an ultra-light notebook. Often, the devices cost less than $500.

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Jennifer Mazzanti, president of VAR e-Mazzanti Technologies in Hoboken, N.J., said her customers view netbooks not so much as an alternative to or replacement for larger notebooks but as a device that is better than a handheld for editing files or working on the road or in nontraditional locations. Web access is a must, as is low power consumption and a good display. "Because [these systems] are simpler, the maintenance on them is a lot less. That, over time, makes a huge cost difference," she said.

"So much of what we do now is being influenced by consumer products that I feel like you have to embrace this," Mazzanti added.

Tim Bajarin, president of analyst firm Creative Strategies Inc., said netbooks have storage limitations and few offer the sort of pervasive broadband wireless connectivity that many in the business world crave.

"At the moment, the only serious business users tempted to go with netbooks are ones that want something really light and small for travel," Bajarin said via email. "But that could change. The new deal between Acer, AT&T and Radio Shack to provide an Aspire with wireless WAN connections has 'business user' written all over it since the all-you-can-eat pricing of the data plan at $60 a month or so is way too expensive for consumers."

Leading netbook lineups

So which vendors make these things? Acer Inc., as already mentioned. Its Aspire One, as an example, is priced around $400, comes loaded with Linux plus OpenOffice.org, an 8 GB hardware drive and 512 MB of RAM. Asus (Asustek Computer Inc.) offers a series of diminutive, stripped-down notebooks, ranging from the $300-ish Eee PC 2G Surf, an Intel Celeron M model with a 7-inch backlit LED display running Windows XP, to the Eee PC 1000 series (ranging from $400 to $600). Eee PC 1000s come with an Intel Atom or Celeron, a 10-inch LED screen and up to 160 GB of storage. Also grabbing considerable cyber-ink is the MSI Wind, an Atom system that runs Windows XP Home edition and comes with a 10-inch WSVGA LED backlit display and built-in Wi-Fi. It is priced in the same range as the Acer and Asus offerings.

Top-tier vendors including Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc. also are poised to play.

- HP weighs in on the larger, more expensive side of this category at around $725. The HP Compaq 6720t Mobile Thin Client comes with embedded Windows XP, a 15.4-inch display, solid state storage and, notably, a slot for a 3G wireless card. To be fair, HP also does offer the 2133 Mini-Note, a VIA-configured system that runs Vista Home, comes with an 8.9-inch diagonal WXGA display, VGA camera and built-in Wi-Fi. The system costs somewhere between $499 and $849 depending on configuration.

- Lenovo's respected IdeaPad S10 Netbook is $349 and weighs 2.65 pounds. It is built around an Atom processor and comes with a 3G wireless slot and a 10.2-inch LED backlit screen. The system runs Windows XP Home edition.

- Dell's offerings include the Inspiron Mini 9, weighing in at 2.28 pounds and a price tag of $349, or the Mini 12, with a heft of 2.72 pounds and a price tag of $499.

As this article went to press, Apple was reported to be preparing an entrance into the netbook market. While the company doesn't comment on rumors, analyst firm Technology Business Research (TBR) Inc. suggested Apple is preparing two models. The focus of the closed systems, as with rivals in this category, will be to support email, media playing options and some "essential" applications. TBR suggests that the AppStore will be instrumental in the system's adoption, providing the managed services that will keep the operating system and applications up to date and secure.

Jay Tipton, CEO of Technology Specialists, a VAR in Fort Wayne, Ind., envisions applications that might call for mobile thin clients in an education setting, since access and security could be more tightly controlled and the systems themselves would conform more to a school district's limited budget.

SLPowers' Sanchez also cites healthcare and manufacturing as two additional verticals where netbooks might find a ready audience. "As Wi-Fi becomes more pervasive, the laptop needs to be able to do less and less. From a management standpoint, I would much rather my clients have hosted applications," he said.

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