Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Tablet computers, business don't always mix

April 21, 2012

I had a rather spirited discussion with a friend a while back. He was enthusiastically showing me his new iPad tablet, and I was trying hard not to be too critical of either the tablet or Apple, and not doing well on either score. My criticism of Apple will wait for another day. For now, let’s look at just the tablet, keeping in mind that this column is about return on technology, not its glitz or glamour.

The exact definition of “tablet” is elusive, but in general we can say it’s a sort of mobile computer stripped to its essence—a screen and perhaps one or two buttons. The advent of reliable touch screens has allowed tablets to truly take wing in the marketplace, and most tablets today take input almost entirely from the screen itself. Tablets occupy a center space between smartphones and laptop or notebook computers.

Appleistas may claim that Apple invented the tablet computer, but that’s actually far from the truth. The first device recognizable as a tablet was the Dynabook from back in 1968, when the lack of touch screens necessitated a built-in little keyboard. Compaq had its own version, the “Concerto,” in 1992. Microsoft released its Tablet PC in 2000, which used a stylus.

This effectively ushered in the age of the “slate” computer, which was sometimes simply a pivoting screen that could turn the device into either a large stylus-based tablet or a notebook computer. These proved popular in niche markets where the computer had to be maximally portable.

Though chronologically a latecomer, the iPad offered one significant improvement: an operating system designed from the ground up for mobiles, rather than being a holdover from the PC era. That difference, combined with Apple’s legendary marketing savvy, pushed iPad to the top.

Today, Apple’s iOS competes primarily with Google’s own mobile operating system, Android. Everybody else is bringing up the rear.

The name “tablet” also covers what are basically electronic readers like the Barnes and Noble Nook and Amazon Kindle. These have even fewer capabilities than the general-purpose iPad and its brethren, so I won’t deal with them here.

So what can a tablet offer that a laptop or phone can’t? The biggest selling point for tablets is portability. The screen is much bigger than a smartphone’s but the whole thing can still fit into a small bag. Most laptops don’t have a touchscreen and tablets almost universally do, which is also a big benefit for many tablet users.

Tablets do a decent job of Web surfing, too. Their browsers typically run both Flash and Javascript, which are indispensable to the modern Web, and they can easily view full websites instead of the mobile-optimized ones smartphones usually get delivered to them.

They’re known to be great for viewing videos and movies on the road, too. Most use WiFi instead of phone minutes, so they’re faster than phones. And of course, you can read on a tablet almost anywhere, even in the bathtub.

I think a tablet is great if your business involves mostly viewing content. That is, you need to access information or share it. A tablet isn’t such a great deal if you have to produce content. Tablet keyboards are a pain to use compared even to the cramped space on a laptop’s keyboard, so writing lengthy documents doesn’t work out well. Neither does creating and populating complex spreadsheets or databases.

A real estate agent, for example, might use a tablet in the field to look up property listings, while an appliance repairman may benefit from having all his manuals on a tablet smaller than a single three-ring binder. It takes some time and money to get those functions set up, of course, but the payoff may well be worth it. Some businessfolk are actually using tablets for videoconferencing.

On the green-eyeshade side of things, of course, is the question of whether it’s worthwhile moving those things onto a tablet at all. Laptops work perfectly fine for videoconferencing, and reducing old paper manuals to PDFs so they can be tablet-tized is more expensive than just keeping the old binders, when you add in the cost of the tablet and its upkeep.

Like everything else, the rush to adopt tablets should be done with ROI in mind, not because everybody else at Starbucks seems to have one. Big companies are buying tablets to try them out in business environments, so let them go first and see how they like it.

Tablets aren’t cheap and they aren’t generally subsidized in the market by their manufacturers, as smartphones are. They break and need replacement, and they can’t be upgraded. If it lets you do something tomorrow that you can’t do today, buy one. Otherwise, invest elsewhere.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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