One More Reason Not to Like Netbooks

| Editorial

The argument is raging throughout the Apple community: can Apple afford to ignore the netbook category? Or is a netbook just a distraction from Apple's low volume, high quality approach? In a thoughtful essay, John Edwards at Computerworld pointed out a problem that hasn't yet dawned on many: major security issues with corporate netbooks.

Briefly, here are the issues cited:

  • A netbook is forced, by size and power, to use older technology. That means it must forgo modern security software and hardware that can quickly encrypt/decrypt/protect data and scan for malware.
  • Older, less capable or stripped down OSes are used.
  • A netbook is easier to misplace because it's so small and light.
  • Security is taken more lightly because the netbook is unimposing, almost toy-like.
  • Thieves will find it easier to steal because it's easier to conceal.

The article by Mr. Edwards pointed out that, even if the solutions are better on the Mac side, many considerations go into the design of what amounts to a new platform.

  • Can it meet the security requirements of enterprise and government IT managers?
  • Are there psychological and social factors that could lead to a compromise of sensitive data? For example, corporate users could be required to keep their home directory on an encrypted flash key and insert it into the netbook at boot up. How many users can adhere to such a protocol with 100 percent consistency? They have enough problems leaving their mobile phones in restaurants and taxis.

In other words, despite the clamor on the PC side, does the commitment Apple would have to make in terms of hardware and OS engineering, recertification, industrial design, manufacturing process changes result in a compelling financial picture?

I've seen plenty of articles that suggest Apple must get into this market, but few financial analyses. (This article on Monday at Seeking Alpha by Turley Miller gets into some details and most of the logic.) How many units would Apple sell? What would be the cost of parts? Gross Margin? What percent of MacBooks would be cannibalized? It would take a convincing spreadsheet to show how Apple makes money on a device whose primary virtue is that it's cheap and competes against other netbooks with high volumes and razor thin margins.

Mr. Edward's article reminds us, with the security considerations, that there's a lot more to jumping into a market than just responding to the sensationalism on the Internet.

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10 Comments Leave Your Own

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Blowfish encryption/decryption of data at the driver level might put a 2% hit on data throughput, if that, on hardware typical circa 2000-2004. I know that because I worked with two products that effectively did that kind of thing with streams of several megabytes per minute. That particular concern is a wholly unmerited slap at the netbook concept. The author just doesn’t like them and presents his dislike wrapped in fabricated data.

Corporate data security is important. But many IT people who are responsible for that assume it means locking everything down and making their company’s people work with 21st century equivalents of the Etch-A-Sketch. There’s a great post today on EconLog about a different kind of security, administered by the TSA. The parallels with the typical bonehead IT approach shouldn’t be lost on anyone.

[url=http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2008/12/the_brains_of_t.html]

graxspoo

I think there are some big pluses when using netbooks related to security that more than cancel out the issues raised in this article.

1) Netbooks tend to be used as “thin clients” (and can be forced to work this way by IT departments) and as such, are less likely to hold sensitive information. The info is in the cloud, not on the hard-drive.

2) As we’ve seen with the iPhone, you can add a remote kill feature, so that if they are stolen, they are rendered useless.

The way I think about netbooks is like a large Blackberry, or an iPhone with a keyboard. Security doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue with these devices, and they’re even more easily lost and stolen then a netbook.

This being said, I’m not sure Apple should get into this market per-se. They should offer a less expensive notebook.

svede

Nonsense. Truecrypt.
Free. Mac & Windows. No performance hit.

How many cellphones and laptops are lost each year as opposed to being stolen? Cellphones =millions , Laptops= 100,000’s

deasys

@Bosco: “That particular concern is a wholly unmerited slap at the netbook concept. The author just doesn?t like them and presents his dislike wrapped in fabricated data.”

Very good, Bosco. You’ve countered the encryption argument. Now, what about the other 95% of the case against Apple getting into netbooks, particularly the financial considerations in the cited Turley Miller article?

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@deasys: Well, Miller says this, which is half-bogus: “Netbook CPUs are low-powered, and are not suitable for heavier usage, such as graphic intense games or spreadsheets containing complex formulas.” A low-end netbook class CPU of today has as much power as the high end desktop CPU of five years ago. So we’re led to believe that spreadsheets have suddenly become more complicated. The real trade-offs with netbooks are screen real estate and graphics chipsets. Secondarily, expansion and quality of moving components (keyboards, hinges, etc.).

I’m agnostic on the question of whether Apple will go there. It would have to be a play like the iPod Touch, where it doesn’t cannibalize the real gem (the iPhone) because it acts like a gateway drug. That’s the story I’ve heard from Apple salespeople and explains my desire now to get an iPhone, despite not liking the form factor or switching to AT&T. What I could see is a netbook running Mac OS X, Mail, Safari, iTunes, no Finder, and an App Store.

What I do know is that arguing against netbooks because of “security concerns” is a make-work argument.

xmattingly

A low-end netbook class CPU of today has as much power as the high end desktop CPU of five years ago.

That, I SERIOUSLY doubt. Especially since I just replaced a four year old tower with a Macbook Pro, which only has slightly higher specs than its predecessor. And that is a full-featured, professional grade machine: not a “half-top” with seriously truncated features.

JulesLt

It reminds me a lot of the arguments against the iPhone aka ‘anything that isn’t good enough for Enterprise IT can’t possibly be a success’.

And indeed, many of the same arguments were applied to the PC in the 80s. As it happens, many of them were actually correct, but that still didn’t stop user demand making the PC a success.

award

The author starts out from false premises. Besides my Mac, I also run an Asus eeePC with the latest Debian-based Ubuntu Linux under the hood, crypted boot disk and user directory, etc. You cannot get much more secure than that.

There are two thought I would like to share with you:

1. I bought both Mac and eeePC for the same reason: weight (or lack of it :D).

2. OS-X is inherently more secure—and can be made even more so—than any version of Windows I know of.

It seems a Mac netbook equivalent of the Mac Mini would not be a bad idea at all.

Seasons’ greetings to all!

JohnM

How can you possibly take this article seriously when most of the quotes are from Rob Enderle?  Nearly every “issue” they bring up would apply equally to my corporate issue Dell D520 laptop, except the small size.

I usually don’t have the same bad reaction to editorials on this site that some others do, but this one is pretty silly.  To suggest that Apple shouldn’t get into the netbook market because of “issues” raised by someone like Rob Enderle is just ludicrous…

John

Steviant

* A netbook is forced, by size and power, to use older technology. That means it must forgo modern security software and hardware that can quickly encrypt/decrypt/protect data and scan for malware.

Absolute nonsense! There is nothing that makes an Atom processor inherently less capable of being secure than a core 2 duo. There is nothing inherently less secure about a small hard drive or SSD. There is nothing inherently less secure about slower ram.

  * Older, less capable or stripped down OSes are used.

Blame microsoft for that - however having said that, the vast majority of computers in use are based on the same “stripped down less capable” OS as is used on Netbooks, especially in corporate environments.

  * A netbook is easier to misplace because it’s so small and light.

A larger laptop is easier for a thief to see, and then steal… an equally stupid and specious argument.

  * Security is taken more lightly because the netbook is unimposing, almost toy-like.

This is getting really absurd, is there any reason to think that corporate security specialists (or anyone for that matter) would fall prey to this kind of thinking? Someone is playing amateur psychologist, badly.

  * Thieves will find it easier to steal because it’s easier to conceal.

Yes, but not by much, and they will get less money when they sell it. It’s been my experience that thieves are generally in it for the money, so they’ll go for the more impressive looking laptop given the choice.

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