Mobile Trends: Why Tablets Mean Small Business

Working at Home

Let the Tablet Wars begin. Apple’s iPad 2 sold out its initial run of an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 units in mere days, and you can’t turn on the television or radio without hearing about the Motorola Xoom or other Android mobile device. The full-court press among device makers is understandable. It is once a decade at best that we see a paradigm shift from one type of device to another: from mainframes to desktop PC, from desktops to laptops and now, makers hope, from laptops to tablets and smartphones.

But while the news crews interview the twenty-year-olds (with their mussed hair and maxed-out credit cards) camped outside of Apple stores, mobile device makers also know that the real battle — and the real payoff — will be among small business buyers. If you look past the streaming-movie content and “Angry Birds” spin-offs, you’ll find that a tablet device is very likely to prove a worthwhile tool in your company’s tech arsenal.

Of course, tablets are nothing new. Slates from makers such as Fujitsu made headway in industries like healthcare more than a decade ago, while HP and Toshiba pioneered “convertible” laptops with screens that would spin and fold to transform a notebook into a tablet. Microsoft even had a specialized version of Windows XP, Tablet PC Edition, in 2004.

But it has taken the confluence of maturing touch-screen, mobile-processor and solid-state memory technology — along with the undeniable wow-factor and brilliant apps model embodied by the iPad — to bring tablets to the fore.

Mobile Tablets Shifting Toward Business

If your impression is that tablets are just for surfing the Web and watching Netflix, you’re missing the bigger picture. “When you think of uses for tablets, content consumption is certainly at the top of the list,” said Peter Scala, senior vice president, office technology, at Staples. “But tablets will have a more important role in productivity than anyone thought.”

Scala points to benefits of tablets compared to their PC brethren such as portability, all-day battery life and their instant-on nature as drivers that will help tablets succeed in business. “A tablet gives an executive instant access to information like reports and sales data,” he noted. “And as tablets penetrate into business, we’ll see custom vertical applications for internal use developed in-house by companies.”

For example, a leading window-replacement company in the Midwest, working with SpringCM, a maker of cloud-based business process automation solutions, is rolling out a custom application for the iPad 2. With it, sales reps in the field can use e-forms to capture a customer’s order (complete with photos of the windows to be replaced) and upload them via the device’s 3G wireless connection to the software on the back end. That saves countless steps — and hence time and money — compared to the previous business process, where information would be captured on a paper sales order and travel through the system from there.

In addition to the iPad, Scala sees a range of tablets worthy of business buyers’ attention. He mentions the Android-powered Motorola Xoom and Dell Streak, along with the upcoming Blackberry PlayBook (powered by the company’s Tablet OS) and HP TouchPad (which employs the HP webOS). And of course, don’t count out Microsoft just yet: At the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show dozens of device makers were showing tablets based on Windows 7, and those devices will be hitting store shelves soon.

For the time being at least, many observers don’t expect tablets to supplant your primary PC, but rather complement it. “I don’t foresee the tablet replacing the laptop or desktop computer in the workplace anytime soon,” said Daniel A. Begun, author of the recently released Amazing Android Apps For Dummies. “But I do see the tablet quickly becoming a viable alternative to the laptop — and even the smartphone at times — for those who need to stay connected when they’re away from the office.”

Begun points out that a tablet’s form factor makes it much easier to pass around to other people when you need someone to quickly see something up-close or to provide direct input, such as capturing a signature. “A big disadvantage that you’re going to experience with just about any tablet, however, is that the touchscreen is not ideal for doing lots of typing, such as creating or editing documents, or sending long e-mails,” he noted.

“It’s possible to use external keyboards with some tablets. But with a keyboard attached you’re essentially converting your tablet’s form factor into that of a small laptop — defeating the primary advantage of the tablet, unless this is something you need to do only periodically.”

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