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Netbooks May Gain Traction In Business

Interest among small and midsize businesses is higher with companies like HP and Lenovo jockeying for customers.
Netbooks -- the tiny laptops that were among the stars of last week's annual Consumer Electronics Show -- are increasingly coming packed with more features and higher costs, pricing some models out of their original markets for emerging markets and education, and into the realm of business use.

Last week, for example, Hewlett-Packard introduced the Mini 2140, the second in its line of business netbooks. The 2140 has a 10.1-inch screen, Intel Atom processor, up to 2 GB of RAM, a wide array of storage alternatives that range from an 8 MB SD card (for buyers who might want to use the notebook as a thin client) to a 160-GB, 7,200-RPM hard drive. It's hardened against wear and tear, and includes a camera. Options include Bluetooth and an ExpressCard slot for wireless broadband connectivity. Prices range from $499 to about $1,000.

However, HP is nearly alone in targeting netbooks at business use: Most are clearly aimed at on-the-go consumers. Netbooks, typically aimed at consumers as companion laptops for those who already have another PC, are defined mostly by their size (screens about 10 inches or less), purpose (typically they aim at light usage, especially because of the low-end Intel Atom processor), and lack of an integrated optical drive. With their shrunken feature sets, their increasing appeal to business has come somewhat as a surprise even to HP.

"We really thought businesses were going to want a fully functioning notebook with more power and more capacity," Carol Hess-Nickels, HP's director of marketing for business notebooks, said in an interview. "You may have a notebook with a dock or a desktop back at your office, but if you are someone who travels a lot, you may want something smaller and lighter."

HP said buyers of the Mini series, which also includes the Mini 2130, include executives and professionals who travel a lot and need to stay connected. With the horsepower HP's shoved into the new netbook, Hess-Nickels said it's also good for productivity apps like Microsoft PowerPoint, Word, and Excel as well.

Thus far, most of the business interest in netbooks is coming from small- and medium-sized businesses, but some of HP's major accounts are interested as well. Interest among SMBs is higher, Lenovo global consumer marketing VP Craig Merrigan said in an interview, for two reasons. One, while corporate employees may need to go on business trips of significant length or use complex applications, the mobility profile of an SMB or home business is typically much more limited. Second, since netbooks are often sold as secondary devices, they tend to add complexity to enterprise PC management.

"There's a certain amount of curiosity from the enterprises, but they're generally not finding they're as suitable with their mobile workers," he said. Features businesses might find useful in Lenovo's IdeaPad line of netbooks (including the new IdeaPad S10, released last week) include facial recognition technology for secure login. Users can set the software up to show users in the case of a theft who has tried and failed to log in to the machine.

Still, Merrigan expects demand to shift somewhat. "This territory is going to mature with higher end graphics and more power on the machine, and that might blur the lines between netbook and mainstream," he said. "We'll be the first to say this space is not yet mature." For example, though Windows Vista doesn't run on netbooks, Microsoft said last week that it is working to make sure Windows 7 runs on "small notebook PCs."