Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Netbooks can be useful

originally published in Lawyers Weekly

They’re tiny, cheap, underpowered, and many of us wouldn’t want to use them too often. But netbooks as business computers suit some lawyers just fine.

Which, considering their history, is odd. A 2009 article in Wired Magazine traced their existence back to an MIT initiative named One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). The vision: small, inexpensive, low-power-consumption (and slow) notebook computers distributed to children throughout the developing world could make education more easily accessible.

Along the way, commercial computer makers figured that emerging markets would flock to small inexpensive notebooks (whose performance would have been ordinary in the mid 2000s) and marketed the first netbooks.

Unexpectedly, sub-$400.00 netbooks sold so well in developed countries that every major computer maker (minus Apple, Inc.) now sells them.

The name hints at a netbook’s main uses. Lightweight in just about every sense of the term, netbooks prove good enough for people to check email and surf the web.

“They’re designed to be internet appliances, so they lag behind state-of-the-art in terms of power, RAM, processor speed and so forth,” says Jim Calloway, Director, Management Assistance Program, for the Oklahoma Bar Association.

Such shortcomings don’t turn everybody off. “I am thankful for my netbook on every flight when the person in front of me reclines their seat and it has no effect on my ability to keep working,” says Matthew Powelson, an IP/trademark attorney and partner at LaRiviere, Grubman & Payne, LLP in Monterey, California.

“They’re great as a ‘floater’ computer for people who travel,” Calloway adds.

“Even when I’m not travelling,” Powelson says, “it’s great to have the small form-factor for taking down the hall to a meeting.”

No netbook user denies the compromises endemic to tiny devices at tiny prices. Regular-size keyboards, certain ports and, most prominently, optical drives don’t fit a netbook’s undersized chassis or cost structure.

“Software installation can be difficult if the software is on a CD or DVD and you do not have an external CD/DVD drive,” says New York, NY-based Marc Misthal, a partner with Gottlieb Rackman & Reisman, P.C., “but it is increasingly possible to download software for installation.” (Misthal owns an external optical drive for his netbook.)

While certain upgrades, like maximizing a netbook’s RAM, boost performance without pushing the price tag into full-size-notebook territory, it’s easy to reach the typical netbook processor’s limits. “When you rely on heavy multimedia functionality to be optimal, the processing speed simply can’t keep up,” says Powelson.

Those processors also limit the buyer’s choice of operating system. Popular options include Windows XP, Windows 7 Starter Edition or Linux. Anything else may slow netbooks to a grind.

Even using a snappy OS, certain software windows don’t fit on pint-sized netbook screens.

Low cost throws another type of curve at netbook owners. For instance, Calloway suggests putting the free on netbooks. “It seems wrong to spend more on the office suite than the computer,” he says.

For all their limitations, their economical nature keeps netbooks on the small business computer-buying radar. “They are remarkably inexpensive and practically disposable,” says Nicole Garton-Jones, a Vancouver-based attorney with Heritage Law. Support costs are “essentially zero in the hosted desktop deployment scenario.” (Garton-Jones refers to a setup where computer users access software and data that resides on servers.)

And Misthal challenges the common view of netbooks as limited. “The standard configuration should have enough power for most everyday functions performed by lawyers,” he says.

“It’s a question of managing your expectations.”

“As long as we just use email, word processing, Google and, say, PowerPoint or Excel, the machines are fine,” says James C. Roberts, Managing Partner with Global Capital Law Group PC, who uses his netbook as a secondary machine when at the office.

“Our IT guy tweaked their performance, which helped,” he adds.

“We even standardize on netbooks for our home-based staff and floating offices,” says Garton-Jones, “because they are just as good as desktop PCs, when attached to an external monitor and keyboard, for access to our hosted desktop infrastructure.”

Mobile-phone companies have jumped on the bandwagon by offering discounted netbooks to wireless internet service subscribers, albeit with one inconvenience. “Having a USB modem (or a flash drive) sticking out the side of the netbook while traveling can be annoying,” Misthal says.

Some of the factors that have spurred netbook sales in recent years seem set to propel “slates” (also known as “tablets,” keyboardless touch-screen devices like Apple’s newly minted iPad) into netbook sales turf.

Austin, Texas-based attorney Dirk Jordan brought an iPad into his practice after trying other options. “I tried a netbook, but gave it up after a couple of days because of the difficulty in typing and my inability to see the screen clearly,” Jordan says.

Thus far, Jordan has used his iPad to interview witnesses and do work away from the office. It also serves as a “companion” on long trips thanks to the device’s media features and long battery life.

“I would not like to create long documents on the iPad that call for lots of research. For that, I need a large monitor where I can have the case law and my brief side by side.”

Such arguments make Johnson’s opinions that of the majority: “I don’t think the iPad or a netbook will be the only computer a lawyer has; lawyers need larger notebooks or desktops.”

“The netbook or iPad will only be an auxiliary that is quite mobile.”

For a PDF of this article, click netbooks.