Tablet Features for Business

Our love affair with tablet computers shows no sign of abating, with 100m reportedly sold in 2012, compared with just 20m or so in 2010. According to some analysts, tablet sales may well exceed those of PCs before long and even last years’ sales are said to be more than trebling by 2015.  Such high sales figures just can’t relate to trendy ‘early adopter’ types sporting the latest sexy designs, so who is going to be buying all of these tablets?

Surprisingly, according to one source, as many as 63% of tablets already sold in the UK were purchased ‘for business use’. According to another, these aren’t just flashy boardroom toys, all sorts of really practical uses in schools, retail, manufacturing and healthcare have been found for the ‘must-have’ gadgets, such that the public sector and large enterprises are buying them up by the vanload.

Here in the more humble world of IT support for the smaller organisation, we don’t get to see a lot of that action! But we are starting to see more than a trickle of interest in what tablets can do. In this article, we take a look beyond the hype and try to get to the bottom of what uses they can be put to in a business context.

So what exactly is the point of a tablet? Whilst serious fanatics will have you thinking that they can do pretty much anything, back in the real world, the truth is that they aren’t a replacement for a full computer system. Not yet at least! Instead, the overwhelming majority of those purchased will be used as an accessory – a peripheral that is bought in addition to the existing kit – to fill specific gaps where a PC or Laptop just doesn’t cut the mustard. Their innovative size and shape have to lead to several functions that tablets are particularly adept at, such as:

  1. The Portable Mini-Office:

    There are some standard business tasks that tablets are much more convenient for than a laptop by virtue of their size, weight and speed to boot up. These ‘portable office’ functions include casual web browsing,  taking notes, accessing calendars, and emailing.

  2. Data Capture:

    Tablets have considerable versatility thanks to their shape, size and ‘touch’ screens. You can draw diagrams, take photos, hold video calls or pass them around for others to see. Moreover, they are great for any task that involves simple data input such as signatures, making choices on forms by keying in text and by pressing buttons etc.

  3. App-Specific Functions:

    Given the huge market and ease of developing software for tablets, apps now exist for almost anything you can think of, and many things you would never have thought of! The overwhelming majority of these are functionally useless for businesses and not-for-profits. However there is a handful that is excellent, and the possibility exists that one of these – or indeed your own app that you might commission – could revolutionise the way you manage your company or deliver your services.

  4. Leisure and Pleasure.

    Let’s face it, tablets are a portable entertainment centre that can be taken home with ease and used by all the family for a variety of activities from Facebook to e-books, games to education, music to films. Some now even suggest the opposite – that you can ‘Bring Your Own Device’ to work on. In either case, whilst there exist methods to secure tablets for more business-like functions, in the main it is easier to accept that ‘users will do, what users will do’ with them!

Based on this analysis, the ‘Data Capture’ and ‘App-Specific’ functions would seem to have the most appeal as far as the needs of the small/medium organisation are concerned. The current crop of tablets – led by the iPad – have greater potential to be used for quite specific and pre-identified purposes, not as generic computers. This is because they are particularly good for unlocking new places, new audiences and new ways in which data can be captured and shared. If you have a need for data entry, searching or sharing when working in the field – whether in the form of handwriting, text, drawing, photos, filling in forms, or simply pressing buttons on a website – then a tablet may be the ideal device. Let’s not underestimate though that the hardware itself is only part of the story, the full ‘solution’ may also involve investment in wider changes to your main IT system or the creation of suitable apps.  And within that thinking, you’ll need to consider your approach to the risks of ‘Leisure and Pleasure’ use!

As for the ‘Portable Mini-Office’ concept, we are at a very significant crossroads. At current, the convenience factor of using tablets for this type of functionality comes at a high price. Not only is the cost of the tablet itself (at £250-£600) an extra cost to pay when any old laptop would probably do the job, but also the apps that allow you to do browsing, emailing and note-taking only give you basic features- features that are typically identical to what you will find on your smartphone,  just on a bigger screen. Unless your IT system has been designed around the proclivities of the available tablet/smartphone software, you’ll probably have to keep another computer with a bigger screen, mouse and keyboard in order to work with shared files and to use Word, Outlook and Excel fully. And that means two devices, two sets of IT purchases and often two rather incompatible software eco-systems being forced to ‘play nicely’ with each other.

However, with the introduction in December 2012 by Dell, Samsung and others of Windows 8 Professional-based tablets, things could be about to change. The concept of a tablet being ‘everything the business user needs in one package’ is becoming closer to a reality. These tablets differ from Android and Apple products in that they can and do run the full Windows experience and the normal, full versions of Windows-compatible software packages. They can be centrally managed and controlled to reduce ‘Leisure and Pleasure’ risks. Combined with a dock, they can link to a regular monitor, mouse and keyboard with ease and they, therefore, have both the power and software to become a genuine laptop or PC replacements. Expect to pay £600-£1200 for one of these right now, but that price may well come down as manufacturers enter this potentially massive new market.

In summary, there can be no doubt that the iPad was a revolution in IT terms. It created the possibility for computers to be used in ways that were never before possible, and tablets are already being put to use in some highly innovative solutions for Private, Public and the Third Sector alike. But if you don’t have a ‘problem’ that tablets could resolve, they may well seem like luxury accessories that are more likely to end up in the hands of the kids than doing any serious work! That said, tablet computing is still in its infancy, and a new breed of much more powerful tablets are just around the corner.  Thanks to these, a future in which your organisation buys tablets instead of PCs or laptops is becoming a distinct possibility.