Do Tablets Have to Be Mobile?
Do Tablets Have to Be Mobile?
There is an entire class of business applications that would clearly benefit from a mobile tablet computer's touch interface and highly interactive and intuitive capabilities. However, in a business setting, workers often need fixed-location, walk-up types of applications that work best on large screens (20+ inches), in real time, over a fast connection (not always the case for wireless).
These applications are often operated not by users who carry the application on a portable device but by users who need to interact for a short period and then walk away (for example, retail kiosks, health care, work orders, airline check-ins and hospitality). In fact, there are many business users who neither have (nor necessarily need) their own personal devices. Having a fixed device that can be easily and centrally managed and updated as necessary by the organization makes a good deal of sense in these scenarios-and saves a lot of time, effort and cost over delivery to individual, portable devices. Plus, fixed tablets are much less apt to be lost, stolen, dropped or damaged.
The Case for Fixed Tablets
The case for fixed tablets
So, why discuss fixed tablets at all? HP has just released an update to its TouchSmart PC line, including one tailored toward business users (the HP TouchSmart 9300 Elite Business PC). Running an Intel next-generation processor with Windows 7, as well as an innovative, tilting 23-inch screen and lots of memory, these machines can provide a level of capability for a user that is unavailable from portable tablets. Plus, although the market is fixated on what portable tablets can do (and they can do much), there is still a substantial potential for fixed devices in business settings (and, of course, consumer applications as well-although that is not the focus here).
I estimate that as much as 25 to 35 percent of business applications now being developed for portable tablets would work better, be easier to manage and offer improved user interactions if deployed on a fixed tablet rather than a mobile tablet device. To be sure, fixed tablets can't replace the needs of a highly mobile work force. Many fixed-location workers can easily be served by walk-up terminals dispersed around a workplace (for example, retail checkouts, warehouse "picking" and health care delivery). If the user interface takes best advantage of the touch and swipe interfaces so prevalent and popular among mobile users, it can go a long way towards improving business applications and providing real-time information to companies who are currently struggling to obtain an optimized solution for their work force.
Fixed-Location Business Tablets
Fixed-location business tablets
So, is HP (and other vendors with similar products) onto something with fixed-location business "tablets" (although it's still a PC at heart and not really designed as a tablet)? Yes and no. It's clear that such hardware has a place in modern businesses. What isn't as clear is whether or not Windows 7 running the devices can provide the intuitive and highly interactive operations that users now require.
Until Windows achieves the interactive UI qualities of iPhone, iPad and Android, it will be hard to see how the TouchSmart and equivalent PCs make much of an impact on business beyond the traditional, kiosk-oriented markets. Nor is it clear that a "fat" piece of hardware made to run a full Windows implementation can be a truly good fixed-tablet device when much "thinner" architectures are probably adequate to the task (and at lower cost).
The real test will be for HP to work with Microsoft to improve both the interactivity and development capabilities to achieve a breakthrough for fixed-tablet uses, and to offer tools to help ISVs to create truly compelling applications (as they can now on mobile-oriented tablets).
Of course, HP could just port the much better touch UI of WebOS to their TouchSmart devices and make it really user-oriented, thus bypassing the "klugeyness" of Windows for these types of applications. Maybe that's what HP will offer next. In any event, I believe fixed-tablet devices will be a key component of business applications in the future and should not be dismissed from corporate or ISV planning in favor of a solely mobile device strategy.
Jack E. Gold is the founder and Principal Analyst at J. Gold Associates, an IT analyst firm based in Northborough, Mass., covering the many aspects of business and consumer computing and emerging technologies. Jack is a former VP of research services at the META Group. He has over 35 years experience in the computer and electronics industries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.