Tablets: Cure-All or Just Fizz?

Look around any public place the mall, the airport, the library, etc. and chances are youll see at least one person carrying or using a tablet-style computer.

Ever since Apple Inc. released the iPad in April 2010, tablets or slates, depending on your preference have hit the market in droves, flying off the shelves as quickly as stores can restock. (HP Slate 500, released in late October, was on six-week back order as of our December press date.) And while the first wave of the devices has been geared to the consumer, a new breed aimed at the enterprise is now making its way on the scene. But will they translate into opportunity for channel partners?

Business Opportunity. Market research also has set the tone for tablets popularity. ABI Research Inc. forecasts sales of the iPad will reach more than 57 million units by 2015. And according to market research firm iSuppli Corp., the iPad will account for almost 75 percent of tablet-style shipments globally this year, with that number expected to decrease only slightly by 2012 to 62 percent.

Other research shows that tablet devices eventually will take the place of secondary PCs a recent study of 500 U.S.-based iPad users or future buyers by Technology Business Research Inc. found that about a third replaced or will replace their PC with the iPad, while almost half use their iPad as their primary computing device.

While tablets are nifty consumer devices, how well do they translate into the business space? Is there indeed a market for tablets in the enterprise beyond the gee-whiz factor?

I believe an opportunity exists tablets have produced more of a frenzy in the market than almost any other technology in any category, thanks in large part to the iPad,” said Brian Corey, president for enterprise services at Brightstar Corp., a services and solution provider focusing on the wireless market. These devices are so popular, an opportunity exists regardless of whether the device is consumer- or enterprise-focused.”

Tablets are red-hot, with a number of manufacturers coming out with devices in the hopes of capturing at least a fraction of Apples market share in the category. In the past six months, devices have been announced or released from the likes of Avaya Inc., Research In Motion Inc. (BlackBerry), Cisco Systems Inc., HP, Panasonic Corp. and Samsung, in both the consumer and business-to-business space. Some devices are designed for a specific purpose both the Cisco Cius and the Avaya Flare Experience were built for unified communications, for example but most are general-purpose machines, designed to complement the computer and smartphone.

I get three to five calls a week from clients that are looking at allowing iPads into the enterprise, and theyre positioning it as a companion device,” said Carolina Milanesi, vice president of research for Gartner Inc.s Mobile Devices team. Some, however, are looking at replacing laptops in different departments, and for people who are just looking at e-mail, Web browser and calendar those kinds of applications that are essentially the same as what they have on a smartphone the tablet represents a lightweight device with more real estate and can replace the notebook.”

As more employees work outside the office and need access to e-mail, calendar and other basic information, tablets can fill the gap between a laptop and a smartphone theyre much lighter and easier to use than a laptop with a larger screen size than a smartphone. And as vendors of business applications catch the mobility wave, more enterprise-focused applications are being designed for tablets, a move that will help drive the popularity even further into the business realm.

The App Store will have to be an important part of the ecosystem in order for a particular brand of tablet to succeed in the enterprise,” Corey said, unless youre really targeting your device.”

Feature-Rich, Function-Easy. When it comes right down to it, tablet computers are really nothing more than oversized smartphones, although admittedly some, like the iPad, dont have calling capability. But a large part of smartphones success in the consumer space and later in the business realm is the number of applications available for the device, a factor which ultimately could decide whether general purpose tablets survive in the enterprise.

Apples iPhone is perhaps the best example of employee-driven adoption of consumer technology into the enterprise. But because the iPhone was not designed for business use, yet businesses were embracing the technology, developers raced to design apps suitable and relevant to the enterprise a phenomenon that also has since played out with Android OS-based devices.

Now the same thing is happening with tablets, although on a much smaller scale since the majority of tablet devices are running Android. A quick look through the Android App Store shows a growing number of business apps for smartphones and tablet devices running the gamut from business intelligence to Web conferencing to sales force management apps a real selling point for channel partners as they pitch these devices to their customers.

A lot of tablets coming out particularly for the enterprise have taken some of the not-so-positive feedback from the consumer space and are addressing that and playing it up in their marketing.” Corey said. The enterprise can have a tablet fully loaded with 3G/4G, Wi-Fi, unified communications whatever they need between the features and the applications that solution providers can add.”

Making the Connection. Part of the beauty of tablet devices is their ability to connect to myriad networks, depending on the device. On the consumer side, the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab are available with both Wi-Fi and 3G/4G network connectivity, while the HP Slate 500 connects to the network via Wi-Fi only. Enterprise-designed devices, likewise, run the gamut on network connectivity, from Wi-Fi only with the Avaya Flare Experience and the BlackBerry Playbook (although 3G connectivity can be achieved by attaching the PlayBook to a BlackBerry smartphone) to Wi-Fi and 3G network connectivity with the Cisco Cius. The Panasonic H1 Field features Wi-Fi network connectivity and optional Gobi mobile broadband ideal for its target market of field service workers.

However the device connects, for the time being some telecom agents may be left out in the cold. Apple has not extended its distribution deals beyond Verizon Wireless-owned and AT&T-owned retail stores, and AT&T is offering post-paid enterprise data plans for the iPad to its Corporate Responsibility Users only, according to its website. And while the Cius has 3G connectivity via cellular networks, the company itself has not contracted with any carriers to provide cellular service.

Resellers working with Ingram Micro, however, do have a conduit to both hardware and connectivity through the distributor, as Ingram Micro offers tablet devices from Acer, HP, Lenovo, Panasonic, Toshiba, Samsung and Apple. Connectivity through the major wireless vendors is also available for all of the 3G-enabled devices except the iPad, since Apple doesnt offer indirect activations, according to Ingram Micro.

We are seeing increasing demand for tablets. Its a great, affordable, new form factor with exciting wireless capabilities and portability all of which makes it more functional,” said Mike Erwin, senior director of Vendor Management at Ingram Micro. [The Apple iPad is] a great example of how consumerization of IT products is driving demand in the business world.”

Agents of U.S. Cellular, which offers the Samsung Galaxy Tab, do have the ability to offer the device to their customers. However, it’s unclear whether they receive a commission from the hardware sale, as U.S. Cellular does not provide details on the commission structure of its sales channels, according to a company spokesman.

Cisco and Avaya dealers can get margins on those manufacturers respective devices as well.

Locking It Down. While wireless capability is huge for users, it has not escaped the notice of security vendors, who are looking at tablets as yet another mobile device that must be locked down for the enterprise, creating yet another opportunity for the channel partners that sell their solutions.

If you consider the fact that up to now Android devices all have been smartphones connecting through the enterprise server for e-mail but now with the Wi-Fi capabilities of the tablet devices theyre connecting to the network directly, security concerns are going to be a big issue,” said Kyp Walls, director of product management at Panasonic. If resellers can provide that value, I think they will be providing a valuable service.

I can guarantee you were going to hear about an enterprise that had its data compromised because they had unsecured devices on their network,” he added.

Brightstars Corey said the good news for the channel is security providers who operate in the smartphone space are moving into tablets as well. Everything is coming out of the mobile world; the security protocols developed there are being replicated for the tablets,” he added, noting that will speed time to market.

Purpose-Driven Devices. For some companies, the question is not so much whether the tablet devices are secure but whether theyre even appropriate for the workplace. Solution providers, again, have an opportunity to position tablets as purpose-driven devices through customization for particular vertical markets or specific functions.

There is no tablet that exists strictly for pharmaceuticals, for example. One major role solution providers can play is developing bundles for resale into those vertical markets,” Corey noted.

Because of their form factor, size, weight and fairly large screen, tablets can be natural in certain verticals such as health care, financial, real estate and pharmaceuticals any market that has a large mobile workforce.

There seems to be a lot of interest in the health care field,” Gartners Milanesi said. But there are still some issues that need to be worked out to sell into that area touchscreens dont respond when youre wearing gloves and you cannot effectively sanitize the devices. Those two issues could limit tablets sale there.”

However, field service workers could benefit from the devices light weight and zoom capabilities, especially with schematics and mapping. If a tech in the field is trying to fix a broken printer and has to look at the printers setup or its circuits, he can zoom in and out on the diagrams and see things much more clearly,” she said.

Other areas of opportunity, Milanesi noted, include the education space, as school districts look to replace outdated textbooks with something easier for students to carry along with the integration of learning management applications that include access to assignments, grade books, collaborative devices and on-demand learning modules. Such technologies will become more abundant as districts update their teaching and learning tools to reflect 21st Century Learning, a movement to facilitate the emergence of new approaches to learning through interaction and collaboration.

Tablets can also work well in customer service realms, providing access to product or customer information at the touch or swipe of a finger and, depending on the device, connecting customers who need more personalized service.

Bill Zakowski, solutions marketing manager at Avaya, noted that the Flare Experience is being looked at as just such a device in the financial community. Financial organizations are considering Flare for customer service kiosks. Customers can start with the touchscreen to access their account information and then connect with agents using voice and video capabilities and document sharing, if necessary,” he said.

Tablets also can be positioned in the enterprise as purpose-driven devices. With their unified communications capabilities, the Flare Experience and Cisco Cius are two examples of tablets built for a specific purpose, but Zakowski noted that at least with the Flare, the devices other features make it useful for other applications as well.

From a horizontal perspective, because of the capabilities and price point we see this as an executive-level device for self service. An executive with the Flare can set up a four- or five-party call with a document in seconds,” he said.

Solution providers would do well to pitch these devices to the power collaborator” the person who coordinates lots of meetings. They need to have controls and this is a way to make their life easier and consolidate devices on the desktop. That is our initial approach, and as software is developed for the devices, we believe they will move into more vertical applications,” Zakowski said.

Both the Flare Experience and the Cius are built on the Android OS, making them open in regards to new applications upping their reputations as a productivity enhancer. Purpose-driven devices are much less likely to be accepted into the enterprise, experts noted, if they only solve one problem.

I think a company is less likely to create failed expectations if it tells its employees, This is a purpose-driven device, but people like to have things that perform many tasks,” Panasonics Walls said. If you tell people they now have to carry a UC device as well as a tablet or slate, or a pad and paper and maybe a laptop, then it becomes, Do I want to carry around so many devices with me?”

Milanesi agreed, noting that she believes general-purpose devices will win out over purpose-built devices as more companies adopt tablets for their employees. The Flare and the Cius are an attempt to sexy up the desk phone,” she said. Their appeal is not to have a tablet in the same way as an iPad; it is designed to allow you to take the PBX with you when you leave the desk. The moment there are applications that enable you to do that on the Galaxy or iPad there wont be much of a need for the purpose-built devices.”

Such capabilities already are in development. In a departure from the vertically-integrated strategies of market leaders, Mitel Networks unveiled in mid-November a new architecture called Mitel Freedom that lets businesses integrate their unified communications capabilities with best-in-class devices like tablets. The company is planning enhanced integration of UC Advanced into iPad and PlayBook devices.

At the end of the day there are only so many things you can carry, honestly, but from my perspective if the enterprise is going to give me a Cius I still dont think Id give up the iPad. From a richness standpoint I can run more things on that device,” she added.

Brightstars Corey agreed, but added the situation may be different for different verticals, especially those in which security is a major concern. Pharmaceuticals, for instance, have higher levels of security and enterprise risk and concern, so there may be less allowance in personal usage,” he said. I suppose we could see a time when employees carry around one device with two profiles rather than two separate devices, but its too early to say right now which scenario would be better.”

For purpose-built tablets to be successful, Milanesi said, manufacturers and solution providers alike will have to play up their unique features and show a real ROI from a productivity perspective. The opportunity for these devices is to position them as true enterprise devices that they are for that purpose only,” he said.

As such, solution providers can position those devices enterprise-only stance as an advantage, touting higher security and better reliability than the devices consumer brethren.

We believe a slate that gives access to an enterprise-class OS with enterprise security applications, manageability and reliability that users need when theyre using the device on the move are fairly important features,” Panasonics Walls said.

The Little Things. Despite their popularity, however, sometimes trying to sell a tablet to address a customer need can be akin to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If a particular device lacks a certain functionality or feature required by an enterprise, such as a USB port or calling capability, all the positioning in the world wont make it a good fit.

The size of the screen is one factor to take into consideration, Milanesi said. In the enterprise, solution providers should focus on the 10-inch screen rather than a 7-inch. The extra real estate you get on the screen with a 7-inch compared with a smartphone is really not enough to make a difference.”

For some companies especially those looking at replacing laptops or desktop computers with tablets for some mobile workers having the ability to connect a keyboard and mouse via a USB port is important. Other companies need a camera for customer-service applications. Still others need the ability to make phone calls from the device.

Some tablets have computer-like capabilities that make them more desirable to the enterprise, such as the ability to upgrade the OS or expandable storage. For this reason, solution providers should first discern what need an enterprise is looking to fill with the tablet and then propose the appropriate device based on built-in features.

I really dont see a huge difference in the form factor its more about the features,” Corey said. The UC-focused devices are more souped up, but thats a design strategy theyve taken with good reason UC needs to have HD audio and video and the other features.”

Corey added that as the tablet market matures and the lines become blurred between consumer and enterprise devices, more manufacturers will incorporate features that make the devices suitable for almost any application. Even Apple, with its hard-line consumer bent, is no exception.

The iPad will always be a player but the enterprise is more ripe for competitors than consumer space,” Brightstars Corey said. Its the same reason the iPhone is extraordinarily popular worldwide but it can only go so far there is only one of them. There will be plenty of opportunity for other competitors to take a bite out of them. I would never underestimate Apple, but just because youre first doesnt mean you will always be a winner.

Peoples first experiences with tablets address the annoyances and pain points that consumers have with smartphones,” he continued. Apple has done a wonderful job of opening up the possibilities. They have redefined how one interacts with the tablet. It really is around the ease of interacting with the device.”

Charlene OHanlon is a freelance writer specializing in the technology channel.

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