May 11 2010

Lessen the Load

Portability, cost and functionality are making businesses take notice of netbooks for their field and remote workers.

Photo: John Emerson
Glenn Acker of cosmetics company Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmetique USA says netbooks are handy tools for outside salespeople.

With some 40 field sales representatives to support, Glenn Acker felt strongly that moving to netbooks made a lot of sense. Acker is IT manager at Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmetique USA, a prescription and retail hair and skin care company that is the American subsidiary of the Pierre Fabre Group, the third largest French pharmaceutical company.

When Pierre Fabre’s West Coast-based hair-care sales division moved from a third-party hosted ordering system to an in-house, web ordering system custom built on SAP, “we decided if we could get netbooks out there, there would be many benefits” for salespeople, says Acker, who is based in Parsippany, N.J. With future plans to implement a customer relationship management system as well, “we decided that rather than going with a wireless handheld device, which would be more difficult to put an application on” for placing customer orders, a netbook would be a more viable option, he says.

“It was my dream and hope that there would be one powerful enough to use in a corporate environment,’’ adds Acker; and after testing four or five netbook models, he purchased the HP Mini 5101.

For the Road Warrior

Acker is ahead of the curve in recognizing the value of using netbooks in small and medium-size businesses.

While netbooks have computing functionality similar to notebooks, including wireless capabilities, they do not come with CD-ROM drives and are not suited for graphic-intensive applications. They typically range in price from $200 to $400.

Buyers of netbooks tend to be “very entrepreneurial,” notes Jeff Orr, a senior analyst covering Mobile Devices for ABI Research in Bend, Ore. They also hold great appeal in vertical industries such as insurance, healthcare and “any with on-the-go localized or regional sales teams.”

Netbooks are often used as companion devices to augment a user’s other computer needs and for specific types of apps. But at Global Capital Law Group in Los Angeles, Managing Partner James Roberts III says the firm no longer uses desktops, and notebooks are being relegated to secondary roles for tasks such as bookkeeping.

“We have drunk the Kool-Aid on netbooks and love them,” says Roberts. Five attorneys are now using 11.6-inch screen Acer Aspire One netbooks, which cost the firm about $300 each. “With a wireless keyboard and mouse and a flat-panel display, the things are amazing,” he adds. The only drawback, he says, is that their 1-gigabyte RAM is too limited, but he says that is not a big issue for his company.

The firm’s principal concerns are file access, security and quick collaboration, says Roberts, adding that backup is “absolutely critical.”

Each lawyer has two netbooks on his or her desk; the second one is instantly synchronized and is used as a backup machine. The move has reduced their IT costs by 80 percent and capital expenditures by about 40 percent, Roberts says.

Roberts discovered the value of netbooks in fall 2008 when he was traveling to Milan on business and wanted a netbook to use as a backup machine there. Roberts was so pleased with his first Acer Aspire One that he eventually purchased a second one to serve as his primary computer and then thought it would be a good idea to have two that completely mirrored one another.

“What I discovered with netbooks is they have sufficient power to do a lot of word processing and web searches and e-mail,” Roberts says. “But if you load it up beyond that, it slows down quite a bit.”

Some of the firm’s lawyers spend a lot of time at client sites to take notes or revise agreements, and netbooks are ideal for that type of work, Roberts says. Because he often commutes between their offices in L.A. and Milan, he says his netbook has made it easier to travel and work.

Portability and Mobility

Netbooks started with 7-inch screens, quickly transitioned to  8.9-inch screens, and then even more quickly moved to 10-inch screens, which now account for more than 97%  of the netbook market.

SOURCE: DisplaySearch

At the Eastern Maine Development Corp. in Bangor, senior management recently decided that netbooks would be a good way for field workers to reach businesses and disseminate accurate, up-to-date information. “The days of carrying around a tote of brochures is gone,” says Jennifer Brooks, director of Community and Economic Development at EMDC, an economic development agency. “Quite frankly, we heard from businesses that they don’t want brochures. It’s more useful to provide a [web] link at the end of a discussion.”

The nonprofit organization purchased about 15 Asus Eee 1005HAs, Brooks says. Along with a printer and

Microsoft Office loaded onto them, the price tag was approximately $1,200 per netbook.

Because EMDC is charged with fostering economic development in the region, “It’s important for us to meet with businesses and make sure they’re getting information to survive, particularly in this economy,” Brooks says. There are pockets of their service area that don’t have broadband access, she adds, so a business’s ability to conduct Internet research is limited. As a result, staff use their netbooks to download information when they meet with businesses.

The ability for field staff to connect to the main office in Bangor is also crucial, she says, because e-mail is the main way they communicate and share information. It also alleviates some of the need for face-to-face meetings and additional travel time, she says.

Early reaction to the Asus netbooks has been pretty positive. “They are very easy to maneuver and very lightweight,” she says, adding that the battery, considered to be one of the strongest on the netbook market, lasts between six and eight hours. “It’s a big difference from carrying a large laptop.”
Small and ‘Genius’

At Pierre Fabre, the low cost was definitely a factor in their decision. Acker says the company spent less than $1,000 per netbook, which included XP Professional, 2 gigabytes of RAM, a 160-gigabyte hard drive and an extended two-year accidental damage warranty.

As Pierre Fabre continues to grow and add salespeople, Acker says they will definitely use netbooks. “The intention is to put something in their hands that is usable and portable to place orders right on customer sites.”


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