by October 21, 2010 0 comments

Any technology that becomes extremely popular amongst consumers is bound to be adopted by the corporate world later. There are lots of examples of this. Free public Instant Messengers are one, which led to widespread adoption of private chat apps in the corporate world. Social networking sites are another example, which are making enterprise application vendors take a serious re-look at their own apps and build social networking capabilities in them. And now, it’s the turn of the tablets, which have been popularized by Apple’s iPad. Within months of it being launched worldwide, the iPad sold more than 4 million units. It attracted end consumers with its large multi-touch screen, HD quality videos and games, and is expected to sell around 20 million units by the end of this year. It’s a different matter of course, that Indian consumers have been deprived of buying one for themselves because it still hasn’t been launched in India, as of writing this article. This in a way, is good for corporate India because it gives them ample time to plan and decide whether to incorporate tablets in their fleet of mobile devices or not.

So are the iPad and tablets suitable for business users, or are they just good for casual web browsing and book reading, with occasional emailing? So far, there have been sufficient arguments and counter-arguments on the matter, but no concrete answer. Let’s try and analyze where this market is headed.

Is the iPad good for business users?

Since Apple popularized the concept of tablets, let’s start by analyzing the iPad itself. It’s thin and light, has 10 hours+ of battery backup, and is great for web surfing, occasional emails, e-book reading, photos, and videos. This doesn’t sound like a description of a device fit for serious business users (except maybe the battery backup). But look at it a little more closely.

App Support and Internet Access: Since most enterprise apps today are web-based anyways, would this device not be sufficient to access them? Theoretically, it seems very much possible, but practically, it is something you may want to evaluate by accessing your own enterprise apps over an iPad. For all you know, the browser on the iPad may not support the features required by your enterprise app. For instance, the current iPad version doesn’t support Flash, so if your website has Flash, you’re in for trouble. Moreover you won’t be able to enjoy the finer things in life, like taking a break to play games like Farmville!

The good thing is that there’s a whole range of apps available for the iPad (some 200,000 of them). So you have a wide variety of options to choose from. Plus, being an enterprise customer, you could provision your own development team and get apps custom built for your iPad.

The apps on the iPad as well as the other tablets should get a real boost once 3G services are finally launched and available in India with all telecom players. That could give a whole new experience to users who access the Internet from these devices.

Email: But the good thing is that the iPad also supports MS Exchange and other standards based mail servers, and supports VPN access into your company’s private network. But apparently, it has a very basic email client, not as powerful as Outlook or Thunderbird. Apparently, it doesn’t even allow the user to flag important emails, or sort them by size, etc. It doesn’t allow users to attach files by default, and requires a third party app to do that.

iPad vs Netbooks and notebooks: The iPad is unlikely to replace notebooks, but there are some serious debates on the Netbooks front. My sense is that it could replace netbooks, or at least put a powerful dent in their market share, if priced correctly in India. That’s because the iPad is thin and light, just like netbooks. And both devices are meant to do more or less the same kind of things–web browsing, email, and basic productivity work.

Most apps available for the iPad are optimized for it. So much so, that you can view HD videos, play 3D games, use various productivity apps on the iPad without facing any performance issues. Moreover, Apple is already making some 200,000 apps available for the iPad, so it’s unlikely that you’ll not find the application you need for your iPad. There’s even iWork, the office suite comprising of a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation apps. You may want to evaluate its suitability against MS Office.

Netbooks on the other hand, run standard Windows OS (XP or 7). So while there are ample apps available for netbooks, they are optimized for the OS, but not for netbooks. The iPad has an advantage over netbooks here.

Moreover, since it’s completely touch based, there’s no physical keyboard, so anybody who’s into serious content writing (like me), may not find the iPad suitable for their work. Even though there’s a separate keyboard available for the iPad, it’s not something that people would want to carry around with them. Netbooks with their clamshell design and built-in keyboard definitely have an advantage there.

Drawbacks of the iPad: The iPad does have its own set of drawbacks, which should be taken into account. The OS currently doesn’t support multitasking, so if you want to run a word processor and have a chat window open simultaneously, you can’t. There are no USB ports, nor is there a built-in webcam. Plus, you might just feel the pinch for lack of using a mouse or a track pad for some of the things you do in your work. Hopefully, Apple will take care of at least some of these drawbacks in its next release. Let’s hope it gets done by the time they launch it in India.

Are tablets good for business users?
The kind of excitement in the market certainly indicates that there’s tremendous potential for tablets in the corporate world. If it wasn’t, then we wouldn’t be seeing companies like Dell, RIM, and Samsung announcing their own versions of tablets. Even Apple is pitching the iPad as a serious business tool, with a host of features, some of which we’ve already discussed. Dell recently launched the Streak, a 5-inch tablet that could be a good companion for people on the move. In fact, we recently had a discussion with Dell on this, and an interesting use they gave for the Streak was to do application and desktop streaming. Organizations that virtualize their desktops could stream it to the Streak, giving users the flexibility to access it from anywhere. The cost of doing this would of course have to be evaluated. The Streak itself is priced at more then 30K. Plus, you’ll have to setup the entire back-end for the VDI.

So the indication is clear that there is a market for tablets like the iPad in the corporate world. It would take some time to be adopted. One thing that could really speed up its adoption would be a killer app, something that corporate users won’t be able to live without. Just as the BlackBerry became popular because of push email, the iPad and other tablets could take a queue from it and bring a killer app.

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