Mobile Trends: Why Tablets Mean Small Business

by Jamie Bsales

As the iPad vs. Android rhetoric heats up, the goal is to capture the wallets of small business owners like you. Here's why a tablet is likely to be the mobile device in your future.

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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."

Android Devices Hit the Small Business Sweet Spot

Tablets with 7-inch screens, most of which currently on the market are powered by Google's Android operating system, are likely the sweet spot for many business buyers. Unlike the iPad with its nearly 10-inch screen, the size and weight of devices, such as Samsung's popular Galaxy Tab, make them easy to slip into a jacket pocket or small purse.

"Perhaps the most compelling appeal of an Android tablet to a business person is the wealth of available business-related apps -- many of which are free," said Begun. For example, for accessing multiple email addresses (namely your personal and work email) on the go, his favorite is the free K-9 Mail app. DataViz's $14.99 Documents To Go app lets you view, edit and create Word and Excel files, as well as edit Google Docs and Adobe PDF.

Begun also likes Evernote ($5 per month), a cloud-based service that lets you manage multiple lists and instantly capture images and sounds -- and then sync all of this information to virtually any other computer or device.

The Android OS also supports sites and apps that employ Adobe's Flash standard for rich-media, interactive content. In addition, custom application development is easier for the Android platform. "If you have access to programmers who can create custom apps for your business, a distinct advantage that Android tablets have over the iPad is that it's much easier to install 'unofficial' apps onto Android devices," explained Begun.

Apple iPad Eyes Small Business, Too

Of course, Apple isn't about to cede the lucrative business market to competitors, and the company's dedicated Apps for Business site proves the iPad isn't just a consumer device. In addition to mail/calendar/contact apps that come preloaded, you also find a range of office-document viewers and offerings like Pages, which lets you create, edit and share reports.

Other software apps include Roambi-Visualizer for seeing important business metrics in compelling graphs and charts; the handy Dragon Dictation app for recording meetings and transcribing voice to text; and thousands more. Right now, the iPad has an advantage over Android devices in the sheer number of apps available, although the gap is closing.

Apple is also quick to point out that the larger screen on the iPad makes it easier to interact with than smaller tablets -- and make it a better presentation device for client and sales meetings. In addition to its out-of-the-box Microsoft Exchange support, the iPad features full encryption of stored data files, so if the device goes missing at least your sensitive information is safe.

And speaking of security: The openness of the Android platform is a double-edged sword, as it potentially opens the platform to malware infections. "The stringent Apple iOS Apps approval process makes the iPad inherently a more secure platform," noted Begun.

Microsoft Still in the Mobile Race

The dark horse in the tablet race may just be Microsoft, which ironically seems like a late-comer to the slate game (that's what you get for being a decade ahead and then moving on). But with the powerful mobile processors being offered by Intel and AMD, device makers are able to deliver a full Windows 7 machine in a thin tablet form factor.

The advantage, of course, is hassle-free interoperability with your Windows PC, plus the capability to use the applications you already know. In that regard, Windows 7-based tablets are compelling, as there is a much larger universe of Windows business applications in the world than iPad and Android apps combined -- a library it will take years for the other platforms to rival.

Another benefit of going with a Windows 7 device is that, with the proper accessories, it can serve as your only computer. Manufacturers are working on docks and accessories that will let you pop the slate into a cradle to have a full-size screen and keyboard when at your desk, then pop out the tablet for use on the go -- all the while having your familiar Windows PC and a single set of native applications and files. For some business owners, the novelty of an iPad or Android slate may wear thin as they find themselves juggling multiple devices and multiple versions of files.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with more than 18 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Mar 22nd 2011
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