Compact, inexpensive Netbooks like the ASUS Eee PC 701 are getting cheaper and more powerful. Why not consider using them for mobile fieldwork applications, like surveys and order entry?
I used the Eee PC 701 and I find it much easier to work with than a PDA. Although the Netbook is a little less portable than a PDA, the Netbook has a large screen suitable for filling in complex forms, and a decent-size keyboard for entering data. I highly recommend connecting a USB mouse to the Netbook if you plan to work for long periods.
However, developing mobile enterprise applications for the Netbook can be challenging because:
-- Netbooks run on a variety of operating systems, from Linux (various flavors) to Windows XP/Vista;
-- Netbooks have slower CPUs (e.g. Intel Celeron) and limited RAM (e.g. 512MB) so Java applications may not run properly. Netbooks are good for running Web browsers and hardly anything else; and
-- The application should be capable of operating offline without a network connection. It should sync the offline data to a server when the netbook is connected to the network.
One possible solution is to use Google Gears to build a Web application that can be used offline. Using the Dojo Toolkit enables the offline Web application to sync the offline data to the server as soon as the Netbook is connected to the network. I did a simple trial:
(2) I bought the Eee PC 701 from a shopping mall for S$400 (US$281).
(3) I launched the Firefox Web browser preinstalled on the Linux-based Netbook, installed the Google Gears extension (http://gears.google.com), and accessed my order entry application.
(4) Voila! I was able to create and edit orders offline, and changes were automatically synchronized to the server as soon as I connected to the Internet. I was even able to start the application when the Netbook disconnected from the Internet, thanks to the offline Web caching capability in Google Gears. The application performed well without any disruptive lags.
Click the thumbnails to see the online and offline screen displays of the order entry application.
So now we have a way to build mobile fieldwork applications that can be used on virtually all Netbooks. There are additional issues like security and reliability to be considered, but the Netbook appears to have great potential to replace the PDA for data-intensive mobile enterprise applications.
(This blog post was composed on the ASUS Eee PC 701.)