Bruce Smith is feeling some tablet pressure. As director of computing services for Cummins Inc., Smith helps the company's 40,000 employees get the right computers for their jobs.
For a majority of those employees, it's a desktop PC. For mobile professionals, it's a laptop. Select employees, such as engineers, get both a laptop and a workstation capable of high-capacity computing.
Now there's a new possibility on the horizon. Smith says lately he's been getting more and more requests from workers throughout the organization, from executives to HR, to deviate from the standard selection and bring tablets into the mix at the Columbus, Ind.-based company, which designs, manufactures, distributes and services engines and related technologies.
So far he has said no.
"We don't yet deliver or support any kind of tablet," Smith says, explaining that he can't justify supplying workers with tablets instead of laptops because, in his opinion, they don't deliver any more value or efficiency than laptops.
That's one win for the laptop. But will it be a short-term victory?
Already tablets are taking over many of the mobile computing duties in the consumer market. Now, IT leaders say they're seeing those same consumers come to work expecting to use them in the office.
But as tech managers examine whether tablets can really do the job that laptops have been doing successfully for many years, most are finding that tablets aren't quite capable, says Ali Tehrani, director of engineering at Presidio Networked Solutions, part of consulting firm Presidio Inc. in Greenbelt, Md.
"They think that these tablet devices can replace a desktop or a laptop in a work environment, but the reality is that they can't," Tehrani says. Companies still favor laptops as the mobile computing device of choice and deploy tablets for limited tasks or for very specific job functions. "In the business environment today, laptops aren't going to go anywhere."
That's the current state of affairs at Cummins. "We need to make sure we have a good, solid business case before we start providing tablets. It has to be more than the cool factor," says Smith. "You have to ask, 'Why is it a business enabler?' Those are the questions we throw back at the business when they ask if we're going to provide them."
Smith says the laptop's design, with its full-size keyboard and screen, continues to provide the best functionality for those who create and produce information.
Sales figures show Smith's continued support of the laptop is shared by others. According to research firm Gartner Inc., there were more than 204 million laptops shipped worldwide in 2010, compared with 17.6 million tablets sold to end users. Sales in both categories are expected to rise in 2011 and 2012, with laptops projected to continue dominating. Gartner estimates nearly 233 million laptops will ship in 2011, while nearly 70 million tablets will be bought by consumers and businesses. In 2012, 276 million laptops are expected to ship vs. sales of 108.2 million tablets.
Where tablets fall short
Tony Young, CIO at Informatica Corp. in Redwood City, Calif., which specializes in data integration, says about 90% of the computers used by the company's 2,200 employees are laptops. The remaining 10% are high-end desktops used by engineers who need maximum computing power.
Young says he expects those figures to stay that way for the foreseeable future, because laptops offer the functionality and power required by employees, particularly the sales staff. "We sell enterprise software, and you can't demo it on an iPad," he says.
Some of his employees bring their own tablets to work, using them to view presentations or check email, but Young says tablets just don't have enough business applications behind them to justify deploying them in place of laptops.
Employees whose jobs require basic email, word processing and simple tasks like approving expense reports could probably get away with using just a tablet, Young says, "but when it comes to more intensive computing needs -- complex spreadsheets, computational needs, and high-end presentations and graphics processing -- tablets fall short."
When employees request a tablet, Young asks whether it will help them do a better job or make more sales. "They answer no. There's not an ROI. A tablet doesn't move that needle," he says.
Beyond ROI, Tehrani says, companies are still struggling with how best to secure tablets and the corporate data on them, as they don't come with enterprise-level support and security applications (with the notable exception of BlackBerry and its BlackBerry Enterprise Server software).
Even when companies develop their own security and support around tablets, many find that workers still require laptops for their full-size screens, physical keyboards and higher computing functionality, Tehrani says.
That leaves companies facing the choice of either buying yet another computing device for employees or saying no altogether. "Our clients don't see [tablets] as replacing laptops and desktops. They see them as augmenting them, just like the BlackBerry doesn't replace your laptop," he says.
So far, no one has put a lot of R&D dollars into building enterprise applications for tablet devices, which limits how many business tasks could switch from laptops to tablets, says David Daoud, director of research for personal computing, PC tracker and green IT at IDC.
"This is pretty much the beginning of the beginning," Daoud says. "We haven't seen major announcements or deployments yet, because almost all of the tablet industry in general has been focused on the consumer and 'prosumer' market -- the small business or executive. But there's been clearly a lot of demand in the enterprise space."
Enterprise software companies are investing in developing applications specifically designed for business uses on tablet devices, he points out, citing key players like SAP, GE Healthcare and Siemens.
But for now, "you see the executive suite using the iPad, but not any substantial business applications being used," he says. "There will be classes of mobile workers who will be a prime target when these key players move forward with business applications and a value proposition that makes sense [for enterprise organizations]. But we're not there yet."
Some manufacturers, such as BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion, are moving forward with more business applications -- but don't expect any breakthroughs anytime soon.
"Obviously with HP dropping WebOS and its tablet, the prospect for enterprise offerings has been reduced in the short term," Daoud says. "For the time being, companies are competing for the consumer market. Enterprises, while on vendors' radar screen, are not an immediate priority over the next two years."
"The business sector will see growing interest probably as early as next year with Microsoft's possible release of Windows 8. Microsoft has been solidly entrenched in the [enterprise] sector and is likely to want to stimulate a solid apps market. But that would happen in a couple of years' time frame."
For now, companies will continue to favor laptops for workers with mobile needs, he says, noting that many large companies continue to choose desktops over both types of mobile devices because they're cheaper and last longer. "We still see a large number of companies where desktops account for 60% to 70% of their base," he says.
Information readers vs. creators
At McKesson Corp., a Fortune 500 healthcare services and IT company, the desktop still reigns supreme, with laptops holding their own and tablets beginning to gain a tiny toe-hold.
"There are many workers who just have desktops. We have a significant population that have no need for mobile computing -- nonexempt workers, administrative workers whose primary job is keyboarding during the day," says Randy Spratt, executive vice president, CIO and CTO at the San Francisco-based company, which employs 36,400 people worldwide.
In addition to desktops, McKesson has 16,000 laptops deployed and supports about 3,000 tablets, about half of which are supplied by the company and the other brought in by employees themselves, Spratt says.
Spratt says company policy allows employees, working with their managers, to determine whether they need a desktop or some type of mobile PC -- either a laptop or tablet.
"It's difficult to set policy around which type of device can be used by which type of employee. We leave those decisions to the middle management and the general management of the company," he says, explaining that IT collects basic business requirements from managers to determine a list of desktop and mobile PCs to offer.
For managers, the key is to determine which workers are better served by laptops and which would do well with tablets, he says.
"There are those who fundamentally need to read information and those who need to create information," he says. "If you're primarily reading, then I see people making great use of iPads and iPhones. The mobility, the instant-on, the lightweight nature and the network accessibility -- wherever you are -- are great features that make these great for information users. But for information creators, they're less useful."
But even those who opt for tablets are not giving up their laptops, Spratt says. They typically pick whichever device works better for the task at hand.
Spratt himself is case in point. He has an iPad 2, a laptop and a Kindle. "So I'm picking the best tool for the particular need," he says, adding that he also uses a desktop for its higher performance and big screen.
Laptop or tablet? Both please!
Indeed, the use of multiple devices is the emerging trend among many enterprises, which are committed to laptops for most mobile functions while still exploring the potential of tablets.
At the University of Pennsylvania, Mark Aseltine, executive director of technology support services, says the university's IT department is analyzing what job functions could be better served by tablets and which still need the functionality of a laptop.
"We'll get to that point where there's a clear understanding of what needs a tablet will fulfill well versus a laptop option, and therefore which class of users will need one or the other. We're just not there yet," he says.
Constant Contact, a Waltham, Mass.-based email marketing company, enables connectivity for employees who want tablets, but doesn't yet support or supply them because there's no clear business need, says Thomas Macomber, who, as the IT help desk manager, manages decisions about devices. "The business made the decision early on that IT would assist [tablet owners] with connectivity but that the device didn't bring enough daily value to warrant the investment just yet," he says.
Macomber himself uses an iPad for email, task management, note-taking and more, but acknowledges that it's a personal, rather than enterprise-driven, preference. "It has made a difference in how I work, but I have also had users sell their tablets and return to a laptop."
Macomber and other IT managers say tablets today are in equal parts appealing and limited for corporate business use. "The tablet is ultra-transportable, requires no boot time, has none of the [technical] problems that laptops have and so far no real virus threats, which is all great," Macomber notes.
But it has limitations, too, he says, including limited robust core application availability, lack of storage expandability, cumbersome access to stored network data and a dependence on third-party support channels.
For now, the laptop remains the winner in most enterprises. But its days as victor may be numbered. Industry analysts and IT leaders predict that the laptop and the tablet will eventually meld, with the best of each influencing the other as the designs evolve.
"Give it two years from now," Daoud says. "You'll see a morphing of the two products so the distinction is very difficult to make."