How useful are tablets for business?

The tablet age is upon us whether we want it or not, but what do business users actually use tablets for?

Last week's CES brought forward a huge number of tablets. It doesn't take a genius to realize we're entering the era of tablet computing. Either that or there will soon be a lot of red-faced manufacturers. (Don't laugh; it happens regularly in the world of IT.)

Assuming tablets are here to say, when it comes to corporate take-up there's an interesting question: What exactly are we supposed to use tablets for?

Tablets make a whole lot of sense in the home, where we can lounge around and browse our favorite Websites or watch movies. But that's not the kind of thing people should be doing in the corporate world, unless it's a pyjama-based, work-at-home day.

In short, what compelling reason can a business have for splashing out on tablet hardware, other than looking good in the airport departure lounge?

Luckily, some answers came at the end of last year with the results of a ChangeWave survey. It asked 1641 business IT buyers if they were planning to get tablets and, if they already had them, what they used them for.

Seven percent of respondents said their company provides employees with tablets. If the results are projected out to the entire corporate IT market, then tens of millions of tablets could be in use in the business world. Fourteen percent of respondents said they planned to get tablets in the first quarter of this year--a rapid rate of growth.

However, 78 percent of respondents said they intended to invest in Apple iPads, in spite of solid tablet offerings from corporate favorites such as HP and Dell. Of those who already had tablets, 82 percent already had iPads. Dell and HP trailed far behind with 7 and 11 percent owning their tablets, respectively.

ChangeWave went on to ask what exactly workers do with their iPads, and that's where it gets interesting.

Perhaps surprisingly, the primary uses mirror the home environment. Seventy-three percent of respondents use tablets to access the Internet and 69 percent to check e-mail. However, rather more interesting are the 46 percent of people who use iPads to provide "sales support," and the 45 percent who use them for "customer presentations."

However, it's isn't made clear what "sales support" means. Could this be accessing cloud-based customer relationship management software, such as Salesforce.com? Or is it merely demonstrating a spreadsheet of figures to a potential client? Or perhaps it means just looking flashy and professional by whipping an iPad out in public in front of those who have never seen one before?

It's worth remembering that the iPad can't run Windows software or even Mac stuff. Businesses have little more than what's built-in, in the form of cut-down versions of Apple Keynote, Pages, and Numbers.There are some intriguing add-ons available under the Business tab of the iPad App Store but there are no big names, such as Microsoft.

The 45 percent of workers who use the iPad to make presentations raises interesting questions. Unless they make presentations on a PC and import them into their iPad--which gives less than satisfactory results--we have to assume that presentations are being created directly on the iPad. Although Keynote on the iPad is easy to use, creating anything other than a one or two-slide presentation must be a labor of love. I'd hate to do it and, if I had to I'd set aside at least a day, because I know it would be time-consuming and fiddly work. Is that progress?

More than one-third of respondents said their iPad is a laptop replacement--an astonishing figure, bearing in mind that the employee is sacrificing a keyboard, full-sized screen, proper Web browsing, and full Microsoft Office compatibility. However, we have to ask if these figures are skewed by cost-conscious IT departments that offer workers either a tablet or a laptop. After all, offering both would effectively double the cost of IT, and we're not exactly in a financial climate that allows that.

What's incredible is that this research shows that business takeup of tablets is happening despite the lack of a killer application. There's not yet a piece of software that relies on the unique utility of a tablet to provide business functionality that can't be found elsewhere.

Some have argued that the tablet form factor is itself a killer application, but the truth is simpler: Today's IT universe is both more established and complex than that which allowed the killer apps of the 80s and 90s to shine, such as VisiCalc or Lotus 1-2-3.

Nowadays we know what we want to do. The question is how well tablets let us do it, and it appears to be that people are getting by just fine.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas .

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Keir Thomas

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