Sales of tablet computers fell 28% in the first quarter of 2011 in comparison with the last quarter of 2010, according to figures from market-intelligence firm IDC. Falling sales are likely explained by a combination of people waiting for iPad 2 (which arrived at the end of the first quarter) and a post-holiday-season slump. Despite the setback, the electronics industry has high hopes for tablet sales. IDC has upped its projected sales figures of tablets for 2011 as a whole, many new products are hitting the market, and retailers such as Best Buy are turning over floor space previously devoted to laptops and desktops to tablet computers.
For consumers, for whom much of home computing involves using the web while sitting on the sofa or at the kitchen table, tablets make a lot of sense. Tablets are quick to start, easy to use, and take up little room around the home. But what about the enterprise? Plenty of examples of tablets (particularly the iPad) serving work applications exist, and one law firm (New York's Proskauer) has even replaced standard laptops with iPads. Enterprise-specific tablets are available. Corporate mobile-technology favorite RIM has launched the PlayBook tablet, which integrates with its BlackBerry devices. And corporate IT favorite Lenovo's new ThinkPad Tablet may be the most business-ready tablet to date, with virtualization-ready Citrix integration and an optional digitizing stylus—yet Lenovo is also the first Android-tablet maker to render online streaming movies from Netflix, including to TV sets via an onboard HDMI port. Thus, whether tablets are destined to remain corporate playthings or evolve into day-to-day workhorses remains uncertain.
The Devices and the Applications
Tablets have played niche roles in the workplace for many years, mainly on devices powered by one of Microsoft's various tablet operating systems. But a new-generation of devices sell for less than half the price of a Windows tablet, are faster and easier to use than earlier tablets, and have a greater appeal to mainstream workers.
iPad/iPad 2 is today's clear market leader in consumer tablets, and interest in workplace usage is growing. Many workplace-oriented applications exist, including an iPad version of WebEx, Oracle Virtual Desktop (which allows a user to operate a desktop machine remotely), Skype, Quickoffice (a Microsoft Office–compatible productivity suite), and an AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) instant-messaging client (many enterprises use AIM for their internal instant-messaging systems). Apple also provides software for enterprises to distribute their own iPad applications in-house without the aid of the iTunes Store (although users still need iTunes software on a standard computer for software setup and updates).
Early examples of workplaces using iPads include the Redlands Police Department in California, which uses iPads for mapping, examining and taking photos, note taking, and accessing the web and emails, and medical-equipment company Medtronic, which uses iPads to present and explain its products to health professionals and patients. In another example, New York law firm Proskauer issued some 500 lawyers with a desktop-iPad combination when the time came to replace standard-issue laptops. Significantly, one driver for the change at Proskauer was to enhance the company's brand.
Various iPad competitors offer tablets using Google's Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) operating system—the first Google OS designed specifically for tablets. Notable Android-based tablets include Samsung's Galaxy Tab and Motorola Xoom. For enterprises, another interesting Android tablet may be the Cisco Cius. This enterprise-specific product integrates with a Cisco IP office phone and provides support for all of Cisco's unified communications and collaboration products (including Cisco TelePresence videoconferencing and Quad social software). For organizations that rely heavily on other Cisco products for communication and collaboration applications, Cius looks like an attractive bet in comparison with other tablets (although it may be less appealing than the iPad to many employees).
Another tablet targeting the enterprise is RIM's PlayBook, which integrates with BlackBerry smartphones. However, like recent BlackBerry smartphones, and Lenovo's enterprise-tablet offering, PlayBook also includes consumer-oriented features, making the product somewhat confused. Yet another option is HP's TouchPad, which ships with the company's own webOS. TouchPad is primarily a consumer product but one that likely could be leveraged in the enterprise.
- Employee-owned devices. A factor that many enterprises face with smartphones is employees using their own devices for work activities. Some organizations, including Reuters, now accept the situation and subsidize personal bills rather than issuing devices, but security and management issues can be complex. Although tablets are less portable than smartphones, tech-savvy employees are already bringing tablets into work to surf the web and show off to friends, occasionally using the devices for work. Executives are also experimenting with taking personal tablets on business trips and using them for presentations and client meetings. Perhaps more important, people working at home will likely use personal tablets to try to access work systems on the web.
- Lack of a standard OS. As with smartphones, no definitive leader exists among tablet operating systems. This lack of standardization makes selecting a tablet OS more complex than selecting a desktop OS and creates particular challenges for organizations where large numbers of employees have opted to use their personal devices. Perhaps future IT departments will focus on providing their core software as secure services over the internet—and become agnostic about the devices and software that workers are running locally.
- Security. As discussed, employee-owned devices and the lack of standard operating systems complicate tablet security. In addition, many devices are consumer-oriented and have far fewer security options than standard computers. Because tablets are portable and desirable, the biggest risk for organizations is likely loss and theft, and the ability to remotely wipe devices is therefore critical (but perhaps a complex management issue for employee-owned devices).
- Replacement or supplement. When law firm Proskauer replaced laptops, it did so with iPads and desktops—not with iPads alone. For workers that normally use laptops or desktops, today's tablets are unlikely to be capable of fulfilling all their computing needs. Ideally, tablets would function as an additional computing device—perhaps for travel and for some communication and collaboration applications alongside a main computer. But additional devices require additional finances—so unless strong business cases exist, most IT departments are unlikely to approve the purchases. The next section considers the business cases for tablets in various job categories.
Business Cases for Tablets
- The mobile maintenance engineer. Mobile workers who have to access reference manuals, complete job forms, and perform other fairly simple tasks are good candidates for tablet usage. Restricted functionality is not typically a problem (many current laptops are overkill), and portability is important (for example, to allow access while on a ladder).
- The retail worker. Many retail workers already use touch-screen computers as cash registers and to check stock information. The portability of tablets may enable retail workers to carry cash registers, catalogues, and stock databases with them as they walk around the store assisting customers. Modern tablets may also improve the store environment and help attract customers.
- The office worker. For the average office worker, tablets are likely hard to justify. They may be handy to keep communication and collaboration applications off a main work screen, but the same effect could be achieved more cheaply with a second screen running off the main computer. And for many people, a notebook PC for occasional telecommuting and travel is a requirement, not an option. Thus, a tablet may be an additional luxury rather than a necessity. Even so, a good number of office workers will bring their own devices to work and may also use them in an ad hoc manner for home working.
- The mobile executive. For executives who spend a lot of time in hotels and airports, tablets are attractive because of their portability (and perhaps help to impress clients). However, modern work practices tend to assume that such workers have access to standard laptops ("I need to edit this brochure," "Please install this software to join the conference," and "Could you copy that file on to this memory stick for me?"), and executives equipped with only tablets will likely quickly encounter situations they cannot handle. In time, mobile executives may be able to replace laptops with tablets, but for now, the tablet is likely to supplement other computers rather than replace them.
- The soldier. Soldiers and other operational military and security workers may find tablets to be a useful piece of field equipment. Mapping, messaging, viewing and taking photographs and video, accessing training materials, and accessing web-based software systems are all potential use cases. Trading functionality for reduced weight and increased portability makes sense for soldiers. And with sand proving to be a problem for conventional notebook PCs in desert duty, a tablet's few accessible moving parts indicate that rugged tablets might enhance portable devices' readiness for service and reliability under rough conditions.
- The hospital doctor. Hospital doctors who need to walk around wards, check X-ray images, update patient records, and check administrative systems are good candidates for tablet usage. For such workers, the time saved by using a truly portable device versus having to go to a fixed location to update information on a desktop or laptop can be important. Of course, health-care-technology adoption can be slow and politicized, so success is not assured.
Tablet computers are unlikely to replace enterprise desktop and laptop computers anytime soon. However, within 5 years, tablets are likely to be quite common in the workplace, whether obtained via personal retail purchase or enterprise purchasing channels. For some workers, such as mobile engineers, doctors, and soldiers, tablets will replace paper documents or underused laptops. For others, such as mobile executives, a tablet may be an additional computing device. Many office-bound, rank-and-file employees may use tablets at work to a greater or lesser extent but typically in an ad hoc manner using self-purchased devices.