As the Mobile World Congress conference kicks off in Barcelona this week, another flurry of mobile devices are set to flood the market.
Research firm Gartner predicts that by 2013 80% of businesses will support their workforce using tablet devices such as the Apple iPad. So should enterprises be preparing to support and buy-in to the technology?
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Every major PC manufacturers has added at least one tablet device to its mobile portfolio. Last week, HP launched its TouchPad tablet, which will run on the company's WebOS operating system.
"Today we're embarking on a new era of webOS with the goal of linking a wide family of HP products through the best mobile experience available," said Jon Rubinstein, general manager at Palm global business unit, HP.
Tablets for specific tasks
But Eszter Morvay, research manager at IDC, is sceptical about enterprise adoption of tablet devices. "The main difference between the consumer and enterprise is the multiplication of devices for one person. In business, people only have one device. Smartphones are already adding complexity for IT departments, they won't invest in more devices than they need," says Morvay.
"Right now, companies are still looking at PC renewals. For many companies, tablets cannot be a mainstream device, only secondary," she says.
But tablets will affect notebook sales. "Clients purchasing notebooks will be looking at media tablets as more convenient," says Morvay.
She believes notebooks and tablets both have a place in the mobile market. However, as the devices are now equally expensive, more tablets will be sold than notebooks.
Morvay adds that tablets will only be useful for specific verticals, such as field and construction workers. "Tablets are not the answer to everything," she says.
Dell is confident IT departments will continue purchasing desktop and laptop computers for business users, despite growing demand for tablets and consumer devices.
In an interview with Computer Weekly, Kirk Schell, Dell's executive director of business product marketing, said, "We don't see tablets as replacing PCs but as being supplementary."
Strong PC sales
Dell is adding to its tablet portfolio with the Latitude XT2 tablet, which runs Windows 7; and the Dell Streak 7, which runs Google's Android operating system (OS).
But, according to recent research by Deloitte, companies will purchase 10 million tablet devices in 2011, making up 25% of all tablet sales. .
Other analysts point to a coming battle between the mobile devices. Rob Bamforth, analyst at Juniper Research, believes tablets will erode traditional PC sales. "In the future, we won't have the need for one PC-type device but a fleet of consumption devices."
He thinks tablets will cause a "fundamental shift" in the way employees work by removing the limitations of technology. "If we liberate employees from having to sit down, they can still access information without being tied to a particular place. It will be a long-liberated approach in many working environments," he says.
Bamforth thinks many employees will want to use consumer tablet devices within the business environment. "Organisations must manage that, securing, maintaining assets and ensuring productivity as well as not discouraging employees."
He recognises that tablets are still consumption devices and lack creation tools for images, video and text as well as the ability to manage, store and distribute content. But tablets could help enterprise video conferencing become a lot easier and more mobile.
Content creation gap
Asus say its Eee Slate EP121 is designed to fill the content-creation gap. John Swatton, marketing manager at Asus told Computer Weekly that most tablets are geared towards content consumption but the EP121 is a productivity tool to be used on the go. It uses Intel's dual-core i5 processor architecture and runs Microsoft Windows operating system.
Asus has launched a range of other tablet devices, including the Slider and Transformer, which run on Google's Android OS. Additional devices will be announced later this year.
Swatton says the high expectations for tablet devices are being driven by manufacturers. "The anticipated volume of tablets was 20 million units for this year. After the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the forecast was revised to between 40 and 80 million tablets. But 40 million units is only one sixth of the laptops sold globally. Laptops are still important to Asus. But we want customers to be able to consume content on the go if they don't require the specification of a laptop," says Swatton.
Erosion of the notebook
But some manufacturers are willing to admit tablets will hit the sales figures of other products.
Lenovo recently announced its LePad slate device running its Google Android operating system. A commerical version of the slate, which can also become a laptop with Windows OS via its U1 hybrid technology, will be available later this year.
Adrian Horne, Lenovo Western Europe communications manager, told Computer Weekly, "Standalone tablet usage remains very much a consumption device with little genuine creation capability on a daily basis."
"As a result, tablets are more supporting devices to traditional PCs, especially in the workplace. It is expected that tablets will erode the netbook segment rather than traditional laptops, although there could be some overlap in the strictly consumer segment," he adds.
But Acer does not agree. Bobby Watkins, MD for Acer UK, says that as the number two provider of notebooks globally, the company believes there is space for tablets, notebooks and netbooks in the mobile market.
Watkins said the tablet is key to Acer's strategy and overall aim to lead in the mobile PC market.
"Some people have predicted the death of the notebook after the growth of tablets in 2011. But people use devices for different reasons and we're investing in all three: tablets, notebooks and netbooks."
Acer launched its dual-screen laptop device, the Iconia, to rival Apple's iPad at the end of last year.
The company plans to launch eight tablets with seven-inch and 10-inch screens by April this year, including a Microsoft Windows 7 professional tablet in March.
Acer is also investing in the business-to-business arena as a growth opportunity. Watkins says Acer anticipates a lot of IT people opting for the Windows 7 tablets to avoid having to add new operating system infrastructure.
"There are a lot of choices and messages hitting the market in mobile," says Watkins. He believes the companies making mobile core to its business will be the only players left fighting for marketshare when the industry disruption dies down.
"We don't see tablets as a substitute for any part of the business. Tablets will be explosive," he adds.
Tablets are still dividing analyst opinion. Some think the portable devices have limited use in the enterprise except for specific field-based roles. Others believe tablets are creating a shift in the way technology supports employees and IT departments would do well to recognise its potential use within business.
As manufacturers continue to put tablets at the core of their product portfolios, IT departments will need to identify ways of supporting an increasingly mobile workforce with employee-owned, if not enterprise-bought, devices.
How field staff make use of tablets
Retail Eyes offers an auditing service for retailers, such as Sony, HMV, Virgin Active and JD Sport.
Its auditors use Motion Computing's F5 tablets to check if businesses are complying, for example, with the correct posters being displayed and floor plans. Data is uploaded remotely using Adobe AIR.
"We've looked at using other types of tablets, such as the Apple iPad. But it's got to be a tool that's robust for our auditors out on location," says Simon Boydell is the marketing manager for Retail Eyes.
Retail Eyes has more than 25 tablet devices in use by its in-the-field employees and has been using the tablets for over two years.
"The tablets allow auditors to take photos and use handwriting recognition to get signatures from store managers," he says.
Bespoke software built on PHP, called Re:View is installed on the devices to allow auditors to upload the results in real-time and offer data analysis.
Boydell admits there are some limitations. "Tablets will never have the same RAM and memory capability as a laptop. It also doesn't support graphics like laptops. But they're not designed for that," he says.
"The tablet devices give data back in real-time so businesses can take action instantly. They're more portable than a laptop and perfect for checklist filling," he adds.