Small Business Guide to Tablets

Wednesday Jul 20th 2011 by Sean Michael Kerner
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Does your small business really need a tablet? We'll walk you through that decision process and then discuss what you need to know if you decide to buy.

Tablets are all the rage in technology circles this year with vendors big and small singing the praises of the Post-PC era.

Apple's Steve Jobs kicked off the modern tablet era with the iPad, and it's a phenomenon that has inspired a long list of copycats and wannabes. While many people in the tech industry are pushing the new Post-PC vision for tablets, that doesn't necessarily mean that a tablet is right for your small business.

A tablet can fit into many different use cases, or it could simply be overkill and overlap with your existing equipment. A tablet could help to mobilize your small business, or it could just be a route to siphon some of your hard earned cash into yet another needless gadget.

In our Small Business Computing buyer's guide, we'll examine the basic reasons why a tablet may make sense. Buying a tablet isn't just about hardware though, it's also about choosing a mobile software platform. So we'll also provide you with a few pointers on how to choose a mobile platform. Apple's iOS isn't the only game in town anymore, and buyers have more choices than ever.

Do You Need A Tablet?

Answering that question isn't as easy as the tablet vendors make it seem. After all, your small business likely already has notebook computers and smartphones right?

How and where does this tablet thing fit it in anyway?

For some people, a tablet is simply a third screen that they will carry. That's a view shared by none other than Dell founder, Michael Dell. On a recent investor conference call, Dell was asked about his views on tablets. Dell responded that he sees it as a third screen (behind the notebook and the smartphone screen). As such, in his view, Dell wasn't going to be able to sell a lot of units as he doesn't see the tablet replacing the notebook or the smartphone.

Motorola Xoom tablet, small business tablet buyers guide
The Motorola Xoom tablet.
(Click for larger image)
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On the other side of the tablet coin are vendors, like Cisco, that actually do see their devices as being notebook replacements. When a tablet is paired with keyboard, it sure does look like a notebook. Tablets however do not have the same storage or processing capacity as a notebook.

How do people use tablets today?

Earlier this year, a study from the Gartner research firm, found that tablets were used up to 12 times a day for an average of seven minutes per use. The Gartner study found that people were using tablets for almost everything they do with a notebook, though the heavy-duty and more detailed work was still being done on a notebook with a keyboard and mouse.

Does your small business need a third screen?

When considering any technology purchase, it's essential to make sure that it answers a number of questions. Here are five questions to answer when thinking about whether a tablet is right for your business.

  1. Will the use of tablet improve the efficiency of your small business?
  2. Will the use of a tablet make (or save) your small business money?
  3. Do you find that your notebook PC is too slow to start when trying to show something to a customer (sales call or otherwise)?
  4. Do you find that your notebook PC is too bulky to bring along when traveling/visiting/demoing onsite or offsite?
  5. Do you use your smartphone for email more than your notebook and wish you could actually see websites and work on applications with the same ease of use?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then considering a tablet might make sense. If however, your existing notebook PC and smartphone combination already deliver the speed and mobility that you need and want, a tablet will likely just overlap what you already can do, without providing a noticeable benefit.

The Tablet Platforms

Choosing a tablet isn't as easy as choosing a PC, where PC is synonymous with Microsoft Windows. The tablet world is made up of multiple vendors each with their own software and hardware platforms.

Apple

Apple created the tablet market with the iPad and remains the leader in the marketplace. There are now two generations of the iPad, the iPad 1 and the iPad2. The difference between them is that the iPad2 offers more graphics power, two cameras (one front, one back) and a thinner case (be sure to check out our drilldown article on whether the iPad 2 is Right for Your Small Business.

HP TouchPad tablet, small business tablet buyers guide
The HP TouchPad tablet.
(Click for larger image)
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All iPads (and iPhones) are powered by the Apple iOS platform. Apple is the only vendor that makes iOS powered devices and the only iOS powered tablet is the iPad. That means when you choose to go with an iPad, you're also choosing iOS and essentially locking your small business into the app ecosystem that exists for it.

The app ecosystem for iPad is very robust with more than 100,000 apps -- a good number of which are dedicated just for business. There are tools that help to make an iPad into a true notebook PC alternative. And there's no shortage of advice about how to effectively use an iPad in a small business setting.

SmallBusinessComputing has also gone into details with a listing of the top 20 finance iPad apps. The bottom line for your small business is that there is no shortage of apps or resource to help you find apps for an iPad.

The iPad hardware is a key strength for Apple and is available in 16, 32 and 64 GB storage capacities. There are Wi-Fi-only versions and 3G versions that work on AT&T and Verizon in the U.S.

iPad2 Stats

  • Model, capacity and pricing: Wi-Fi; 16/32/64 GB; $499/$599/$699
  • Model, capacity and pricing:  Wi-Fi + 3G; 16/32/64 GB; $629/$729/$820
  • OS: iOS
  • Screen size: 9.7 inches
  • Battery life: 10 hours

Android

The Android mobile operating system, backed by Google, is another tablet option. Unlike Apple however, Android powered devices are available from multiple vendors. Also unlike Apple, each vendor can choose to have a different version of Android, which can lead to confusion on potential incompatibilities across Android devices for a given app.

Currently there are Android devices in the market powered by Android 2.2 and 3.1. The Android 2.2 operating system was not designed for tablets, though multiple vendors including Cisco have chosen to use it for their Android tablets.

When looking at Android tablets, small businesses need to look at both the version of Android and the hardware. There are many Android tablet vendors, which further adds to the complexity. In this buyer's guide we'll take a look at Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab and Cisco Cius.

Android Tablet Options

Vendor Device Models OS Screen Size Battery Life MSRP
Motorola Xoom 32 GB Wi-Fi Android 3.1 10.1 inches 10 hours $499
Motorola Xoom 32 GB Wi-Fi Android 3.1 10.1 inches 10 hours $599 w/contract;
$799 w/o
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 16/32/64 GB Android 3.1 10.1 inches 9 hours $499/$599/TBA
Toshiba Thrive 8/16/32 GB Android 3.1 10.1 inches 11 hours $429/$479/$579
Cisco Cius 32 GB Android 2.2 7 inches TBA TBA

Android 2.2 and 2.3 are both smartphone operating systems as well, and the same apps that run on your small business' Android smartphone will run on tablets.

Blackberry Playbook

RIM is the vendor that helped start the modern smartphone revolution with the Blackberry. The Playbook is an attempt by RIM to extend the Blackberry into the tablet realm. The Playbook runs Blackberry Apps and is supposed to be able to run Android apps as well (though if you're really looking for Android apps, just buy a pure Android tablet).

While the Blackberry smartphone is famous for its email, the Playbook at launch did not include native email. Instead RIM expected Playbook users to pair or bridge their existing Blackberry with the Playbook in order to get email functionality. An update for the Playbook to support native email is expected by the end of the summer.

Unlike every other tablet in this buyer's guide, the current iteration of the Playbook relies on the user to have another device, namely a Blackberry smartphone for full functionality. Plus, the tablet is only available in a Wi-Fi only hardware configuration, which means that the smartphone bridge is also the only way the Playbook can get 3G connectivity.

RIM Blackberry Playbook Stats

  • Capacity and pricing: 16/32/64 GB; $499/$599/$699
  • OS: BlackBerry Tablet OS
  • Screen size: 7 inches
  • Battery life:

HP TouchPad

HP adds yet another option to the mix of tablet choices. The TouchPad isn't just a new hardware platform; it's also a different operating system. The TouchPad is powered by HP's WebOS, the same thing that is behind their Palm PRE. HP acquired Palm, and the WebOS software for $1.2 billion back in April of 2010.

In comparison to Android, Apple iOS and the Blackberry, WebOS currently has a smaller app ecosystem. That doesn't necessarily mean that you won't find the essential tools your small business might need, it just means that there isn't as much choice, yet. As is the case with the Blackberry Playbook, the first generation of TouchPads doesn't have 3G connectivity options.

HP TouchPad Stats

  • Capacity and pricing: 16/32 GB; $499/$599
  • OS: WebOS
  • Screen size: 9.7 inches
  • Battery life:

Choosing a Small Business Tablet

Now that you know about the different options, how do you go about actually selecting a tablet that makes sense for your small business? (Assuming you decided that you need one).

While hardware matters, the app ecosystem is likely the first factor that you need to consider. As part of the app considerations, you need to understand what you're already using in your small business.

Question #1: What smartphone platforms do you and your staff use?

At a high-level, tablets are very much extensions of the smartphone experience. If you already have an iPhone, have already invested in apps and like the overall iOS experience, you likely are a good candidate for going with an iPad.

In the case of the Blackberry Playbook, having a Blackberry smartphone is currently essential to getting the full Playbook experience. If you're not using a Blackberry, than going with the Playbook isn't practical.

With Android, the complexity surrounding version numbers (especially Android 2.x vs. 3.x) makes the issue of which phone you have a little less relevant, though it's still important. Again, if you and your team are already using Android smartphones and are comfortable with the experience, than Android tablets are a good first place to look.

Cisco Cius tablet, small business tablet buyers guide
The Cisco Cius tablet.
(Click for larger image)
.

The HP TouchPad is also attached to a smartphone, namely the Palm Pre device. If you happen to have a Pre, than the TouchPad is a good first tablet to consider.

Question #2: How much battery power do you need in a day?

Apple's iPad sets the bar of tablet life with a 10 hour battery. While that may sound like lots, many small business users work significantly longer days. So after 10 hours the only choice with an iPad is to plug it in until you can recharge.

In contrast, with both the Cisco Cius and Toshiba Thrive you can remove the battery and replace it with a fresh one, which could extend total working time to 16 hours or more.

Question #3: Do you need Flash?

The Apple iPad does not run Adobe Flash. If your small business must access sites or applications that only run with Flash, you should avoid the iPad as it will become a source of never-ending frustration.

That said, since Apple has sold millions of iPads, there is no shortage of apps and websites that conform to the next generation HTML5 specification and can deliver Flash-like experiences without actually using Adobe Flash. Also from an App developer perspective, Apple does allow Adobe's AIR, which is essentially a Flash runtime to be embedded inside of apps. That means that if a developer really wants to, they can just go the AIR route, build a native iPad app and deliver the same experience.

Apple's competitors (and retail store clerks) will often harp on the fact that other tablets run Flash. It's a question you need to answer, but it doesn't necessarily mean that an iPad is an inferior device. Ultimately it's about what you do or don’t need to make your small business more efficient.

Question #4: 3G or Wi-Fi?

Your smartphone likely has both 3G and Wi-Fi on it (and if it doesn't, it should). Having both gives your small business the true benefits of mobility -- you can go (almost) anywhere and still remain connected.

Some smartphones and some carriers let you use your smartphone as a wireless hotspot. That means you can you use your phone (with its 3G connectivity) to give access to your tablet wherever you may be. The problem is that not all carriers allow that kind of sharing, and it also can potentially be more expensive than simply buying a separate 3G plan for your tablet.

If you have a Wi-Fi-only tablet and your smartphone doesn't have data sharing (and/or it's not cheap), then you can use the tablet only at your business and in places that offer Wi-Fi. In contrast with 3G, you the potential to always be connected, which might be the difference between the tablet being a device that improves your efficiency, or not.

Take The Practical Approach

First make sure you understand why you're buying the tablet and where it will fit into your small business. Don't buy it for hype's sake. It's a business tool, and when properly used it could help to improve efficiency -- and make you more money.

When choosing a tablet, remember that you're not just buying a piece of hardware, you're buying into a whole mobile ecosystem that includes and relies on apps.

For better or for worse, Apple's iPad is the leader today, and if you buy any other tablet the first question anyone will ask you is: Why didn't you buy an iPad? If you can answer that question and the ones earlier in this buyer's guide, you and your small business will be well on the way to a successful tablet deployment.

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