Friday, April 15, 2011

How useful are tablets for business?

It’s tempting to think of tablets as primarily consumer-focused devices. After all, the default image of a tablet computer often involves someone playing Angry Birds or reading an eBook on a sleek, shiny iPad.

But in reality, some of the most enthusiastic tablet purchasers over the past year have been small and medium-sized businesses, who are using them to replace everything from the (paper) notebook to the (computer) notebook.

On Tuesday, Research In Motion will release its PlayBook tablet, perhaps the most business-focused mobile computer out there. The company hopes that features such as BlackBerry tethering (a feature that allows you to share the Internet connection of your smart phone with your tablet) and better security features will entice corporate customers to ditch the iPad.

Before looking at how companies are using devices such as the PlayBook, it’s worth noting just how many businesses are adopting the technology. According to a recent report by research firm TechAisle, small and medium-sized businesses are using almost 9 million tablets in the U.S. alone. Almost three-quarters of the businesses surveyed are using the devices to supplement, rather than replace their desktops and notebooks. Unsurprisingly, Apple’s iPad is the dominant platform, although the study suggests Android-powered tablets are also gaining prominence. In terms of industries, the two biggest early adopters are health care and financial services.

The way companies in those industries are using tablets points to how many other types of businesses will use them in the future. Consider Sun Life Financial, the insurance giant. Not only will its senior managers be using PlayBooks to conduct presentations (the tablets handle high-definition resolutions and PowerPoint files, making them a lightweight alternative to notebooks and projectors), but insurance agents will also take the devices to meetings with clients. The strategy is to replace paper products with something a lot more flashy, versatile and reusable.

A number of Canadian wealth management firms have also adopted the iPad for the same reason. For example, one firm is using the devices as a replacement to laptops for its client advisers. Tasks that were once time-consuming and clunky, such as photocopying documents, can now be done using tools such as the tablet’s on-board camera.

In the health care industry, the tablet is also quickly becoming a streamlining tool. Late last year, RIM showed off a medical app for the PlayBook called eUnity. The app is a medical image viewer, which securely transmits X-Ray scans, MRIs and other such data to a doctor’s tablet, making for much easier and more organized viewing. In hospitals such as Toronto’s Sunnybrook, staff are trying out such tools.

But there are still a number of issues keeping tablets from breaking out in the business world in the same numbers as laptops and desktops. For one thing, the operating systems on many of the tablets today aren’t customizable, meaning that it is more difficult for IT departments to install custom software or set usage restrictions. Other companies have raised concerns about the level of security on most tablets – a concern RIM hopes to capitalize on with its BlackBerry-tethered PlayBook. However, those concerns are easing somewhat as some companies come to consider the tablet simply as an access device, with the sensitive data itself stored on a more secure cloud. Should such a view become the norm, expect to see a lot of small and large businesses using tablets the way they do laptops.


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