How to choose the best media tablet for your SMB

Read about the best media tablets for SMB currently available, the major players involved and new commercial opportunities

Media tablets have finally found a place in the small to medium business (SMB) sector, supplementing notebooks and smartphones.

The hype surrounding media tablets is largely due to the phenomenal success of the iPad which brought to life a new model of computing centred on Web browsing, applications and media consumption. But the device itself is only part of the story, according to Gartner analyst, David Willis. “The packaging of hardware and software that Apple created with the iPad, along with the ecosystem of applications and media that surrounded it, has made the real difference,” Willis said.

To get a better understanding of the media tablet market, Computerworld has prepared this special feature outlining the best SMB offerings currently available. It outlines the major players and their operating systems including Android, MeeGo, WebOS, QNX and the Apple iOS. The feature examines whether Microsoft will bring to market a tablet-specific version of Windows 8 in 2012. The feature also highlights new commercial opportunities presented by this device and presents purchasing guidelines covering telco contracts and upgrade cycles.

SMBs are using tablets as a notebook companion; a secondary device to take on the road for fast access to email, calendaring, interrogating Web applications and information sources and showing PowerPoint presentations. Shipments for tablets is expected to reach 69 million in 2011 but Gartner expects this figure to increase significantly when the average selling price of tablets drops below $450 in 2012. So how are they being used today?

Willis said some companies have issued them to business in the spirit of exploration. “Companies that had already recognised the flood of consumer devices coming into business, and had figured out a way to leverage it rather than fight it, have been more prepared to embrace media tablets,” he said. “Organisations also realise that they don’t need to supply and manage every device that an employee uses at work.”

Miller said the business community don’t want to make the same mistakes they made with smartphones, which were often written off early as expensive and frivolous toys, or executive status symbols. “But the time is definitely right to explore the use of media tablets in business today,” he said.

New opportunities

Media tablets provide a different user experience than laptops. Rather than a full replacement for conventional PCs, they are a convenient supplement. By activating instantly, they allow a user to get right to what he or she needs immediately without long and frustrating start up times. Also, with few mechanical parts, media tablets have exceptional battery life.

Willis said, “In a common mobile worker scenario, employees may travel with a media tablet during the day, but then return to their laptops in the after-hours for heads-down data entry or content creation.” This working model has distinct advantages.

In mid-conversation with a client, a sales agent can open up a media tablet as naturally as opening up a book and then casually walk through documents and videos — avoiding the awkward, finger-drumming delays of booting up a laptop and launching applications. Willis said many sales leaders are clamouring to adopt them in their workforce.

This is particularly true in the SMB sector where mobility is the key. He said the next step is CRM systems, order entry and sales configuration applications. “For sales managers, media tablets will be a natural platform for business analytics and performance decisions,” Willis added.

Medical settings are ideal for tablets also allowing doctors to sit down with a patient and explain a diagnosis or walk through a procedure. Even in retail, staff can display customised clothing for a customer.

“Business processes where people need information while they are walking or sitting down are good candidates for media tablet applications,” Willis explained. “Modest form-based data entry systems are easy to create as well. Another interesting set of uses centres on tablets permanently mounted in a physical location such as a kiosk, vehicle or elevator.”

The major players

Before developing a purchasing strategy, organisations first need to understand the market including the major players and their operating systems (OS).

Apple may have redefined what a computing tablet is, but others are also joining in. “For Apple’s often well-capitalised competitors this will be a high stakes battle,” Willis said. Google will compete via Android along with Research in Motion (RIM) with QNX and HP with WebOS.

While Microsoft and Nokia have each been holding their cards close to their chests, Willis said they will surely enter the game in coming months. Fundamentally, the market battle will not hinge on features and specifications. Instead, the platform that will prevail will have a strong supporting ecosystem of developers producing a wide range of applications.

In this area, Willis said Apple is miles ahead of the competition. “Not only does it have a first-mover advantage in the device itself, but it has built a curated application distribution mechanism in the App Store that is notable both for how users hold it in high regard and how detractors see it as a limitation,” he said. Due to the success of Apple’s iPad, the iOS will account for 69 per cent of media tablet OSs in 2011, and represent 47 per cent of the tablet market in 2015, according to Gartner.

Google’s Android OS is forecast to increase its worldwide share of the media tablet market from 20 per cent in 2011 to 39 per cent in 2015. Gartner believes Google’s decision to not open up Honeycomb, its first OS version dedicated to tablets to third parties, will prevent fragmentation. However, it will also slow the price decline and ultimately cap market share.

According to Roberta Cozza, principal analyst at Gartner, “Volume will be driven by support from many players, the ecosystem of applications for tablets getting more competitive and some platform flexibility allowing lower price points.”

“The new licensing model that Google has introduced with Honeycomb enables a compelling ecosystem of applications and services around QNX to position it as a viable alternative to Apple or Android,” she said.

Gartner said RIM will migrate Blackberry devices to QNX operating system which will offer users more consistency across its products. However, nothing good comes easy or quickly.

Carolina Milanesi, research vice-president at Gartner, said RIM will need to build up a rich ecosystem to be able to compete in the tablet market. “It will take time and significant effort for RIM to attract developers and deliver a compelling ecosystem of applications and services around QNX to position it as a viable alternative to Apple or Android,” she said.

Gartner expects Microsoft to bring to market a tablet-specific version of Windows 8 in 2012 but believes its appeal will be limited as potential users will have already chosen a platform by then. “Microsoft’s main limitation is the late arrival of its products,” Gartner said. This is despite the fact that most SMBs will be happy to integrate Windows-based devices in their portfolios as it is so familiar.

Despite a strong channel presence, HP has taken a cautious approach to rolling out its TouchPad. Gartner said platforms such as MeeGo and WebOS, which currently have a weak presence in the smartphone market, will have limited appeal unless they can grow that business. This is because smartphone users will want to buy a tablet that runs the same operating system as their smartphone so they can share applications across both devices and for the sense of familiarity the user interfaces will bring.

Procurement guidelines

At least 40 per cent of media tablets sold in 2014 will be linked to a Communications Service Provider (CSP) contract, according to Gartner. This makes CSP contracts a significant factor to consider.

Gartner expects CSPs will shift their current subsidy strategy for mobile broadband from notebooks to media tablets and take advantage of the hype surrounding tablet devices.

Subsidised devices will attract smaller organisations inhibited by initial hardware costs. Also, subsidised media tablets will see a cyclical replacement time of between 24 and 36 months. Aside from some exceptions where a provider will allow for an upgrade within the contract period, most organisations will replace devices when the contract is up for renewal.

Therefore, the biggest replacement wave will happen when second-generation devices hit the market. After that, hardware will only change moderately leaving affluent users (about 15 per cent) to replace devices annually.

Gartner estimates 40 per cent of first generation iPad users will upgrade to an iPad 2.

Application licensing is another consideration for SMBs. For example, employee-owned iPads and used off-premises are licensed differently, and may be less expensive to license than iPads owned by the business.

A mobile device strategy will be necessary to address these questions and to mitigate business risk.

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