The Business Case for Tablets

By Michelle Maisto  |  Posted 2013-06-16

The Business Case for Tablets

There was a tablet conference underway in a fashionable Manhattan event space the day that BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins made headlines for telling an interviewer he doesn't see much of a future for tablets.

"In five years, I don't think there'll be a reason to have a tablet anymore," Heins had said during an interview at the Milken Institute conference in Los Angeles April 29. "Maybe a big screen in your workspace, but not a tablet as such. Tablets themselves are not a good business model."

Apple, which sells more tablets than any other hardware maker, said during its last earnings call that 95 percent of the Fortune 500 (the top revenue-generating companies in the United States) are either using or testing its iPad, and 89 percent of the Global 500 (the world's top generators) are using iPads.

Still, the business case for tablets isn't always straightforward, and the majority of the tablets being used in work scenarios are personal devices. A 2012 Forrester global information worker study found 12 percent using tablets, and 8 percent had paid for them themselves.

Ken Dulaney, a vice president and Distinguished Analyst at Gartner, told eWEEK that the iPad, when it was introduced, helped to further the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend because it was cool and beautiful and workers wanted to use it.

"But IT couldn't figure out a reason that a knowledge worker needed a tablet," he said.

"For some, an iPad and a keyboard can be a substitute for a notebook, but this can never be on a permanent basis because most content in organizations is created with the Office suite, and those applications do not run in full on iPads," Dulaney explained. "The potential for errors, when using such a solution, is not a huge variable, but business people cannot afford to look at a spreadsheet on an iPad and wonder if something is missing."

Gartner's stance, he added, is that the iPad is not a laptop replacement. While in vertical markets they can be justified, for knowledge workers "they are still an extra expense."

Vertical Markets and Tablets

At the April 30 tablet conference, which was hosted by TabTimes, people were either justifying their tablet purchases or considering their own tablet deployments,so Heins' comment didn't sit well.

During a panel discussion about managing a successful tablet project, Ragu Kantamaneni, chief evangelist of product marketing and business development with Damaka, a unified communication and collaboration provider, considered Heins' comment before responding: "I think that's nonsense."

The Business Case for Tablets

He went on to tell the story of a colleague whose wife was not very technologically inclined—she didn't use a laptop, didn't really use email. But then the friend got an iPad and left it home one day.

"In a few hours she was doing everything, surfing the Web, sending him text messages," said Kantamaneni. "Any device that makes it that easy—I don't see how that doesn't translate to the office."

Indeed, it has. Forrester reported in its November 2102 "Mastering the Business Tablet Landscape" that early iPad adopters bought them for "what they could do in their everyday lives." Soon, though, they were bringing the tablets to work "to boost productivity."

The latter came in the form of ubiquitous connectivity and convenience—in Europe, 19 percent of information workers work in three or more locations, and the United States and Europe, 65 percent of workers are taking tablets home to get more work done, says Forrester.

The ease, appeal and convenience of tablets are undeniable. But where they make the strongest business cases is where they do what no other device can do as well (the opposite scenario of forcing a tablet into a laptop-replacement role).

"There are two really important angles to consider," said JP Gownder, a Forrester vice president and principal analyst. "Vertical and role."

Gownder said that through surveys, Forrester has created lists of top tablet users. Topping the list is CEOs ("CEOs say they want one, IT has to buy one"), but after them are field sales workers and then very heavy travelers.

Verticals embracing and benefiting from tablets include health care, retail, financial services, education, hospitality and banking. To that list Gownder adds "companies that deploy drivers of trucks, nurses who make house visits—anywhere where you're a supporting a field worker in multiple locations."

He gave the example of how GE has giant utility towers that field engineers climb up to do repairs and perform maintenance. It's not feasible to bring up laptops, but the engineers have found they're able to bring up tablets and collect more and better information.

At the tablet conference, case studies were presented by two airlines, two health care providers, a culinary institute and even the School of Rock.

Bayada Home Health Care told of deploying 7-inch tablets to its 4,000 home health care workers, who are now able to work more effectively and efficiently—they can fill in forms more quickly, call up patient records instantly, better answer patient questions and, thanks to GPS, even optimize their travel. They also particularly like the form factor, which they find easier to carry and hold and less intrusive when sitting with patients.

But key to getting the strongest return on a tablet deployment is the software that tablets run.

At the TabTimes conference, Brian Katz, head of mobility engineering at pharmaceuticals company Sanofi-Aventis, discussed the rollout of iPhones and iPads to 1,500 employees. He made clear: "A device is not a tool. It's when you marry a device and an app that you have a tool."

Your Tablet Is Only as Good as Your Apps

The right software is the difference between being able to make a strong business case for a tablet deployment and not.

"Without the right applications, tablets are just a fancy Internet browser that you can carry around," Ted Schadler, Forrester vice president and principal analyst, told eWEEK. "To sell or provide field service, you need the content and applications to get the job done."

Forrester's Gownder said there are two options. One is to work with what's available off the shelf, which is to say, in app stores, and Microsoft's Office is a big component of that. For the iPad, "there are a whole bunch of things—a huge, huge ecosystem available," he said.

The second option is custom software. A lot of companies have legacy software, and they can virtualize it using Citrix or VMware, said Gownder. "Or, more interesting is a company like GE, where they've moved a lot of their development talent to iOS to create software for the thousands of iPads they've deployed."

Gownder offers Logitech as another example of a company benefiting from custom software.

It has salespeople who travel to thousands of stores in Asia to, among other things, see how merchandise is being displayed. Logitech has created an app in which they can take a picture and share real-time views from these stores.

"Most importantly, they location tag everything, so they're creating big data and can do a deep analysis and really redeploy products more effectively," said Gownder.

The Business Case for Tablets

Calling the Logitech custom software "critical," he added that a reason that iOS has done so well is "people find it easy to add their own value-added apps."

According to the aforementioned Forrester report, 34 percent of information workers are already using company-specific applications on tablets.

That report also reveals that most popular applications being used for work on smartphones are also being used on tablets—and to a greater degree. Of a group of 4,400-plus information workers, 79 percent said they use their smartphone to access email, while 85 percent said the same of their tablets. The intranet is used by 26 percent on smartphones, but 44 percent on tablets. File storage, information management, Web conferencing, team collaboration, sales force applications—in every instance, users are engaging these work applications more with tablets than smartphones.

The Future of Tablets

BlackBerry's Heins, to be clear, doesn't doubt the benefits of tablets or what they make possible. What Heins was explaining during the Milken interview is how he expects mobility will evolve.

At the BlackBerry Live event in Orlando, Fla., May 14, Heins, in response to a question about his April comment, explained that BlackBerry believes users are moving to a point where they will have one mobile device—a motor, or brain, that will power or inform various screens or touchpoints in our lives, from watches to cars, televisions and other displays.

"My true belief is that we will all be running around with, in five years from now, one device that will be our personal mobile engine ... and that will affect tablets, as well," Heins said.

Peter Devenyi, senior vice president of enterprise software at BlackBerry, reiterated during a separate meeting: "We definitely see a world where you bring in your one device and it becomes your [world]. You unplug it and go home and plug it in there, and you continue to work as seamlessly as you ever did. There are many, many workers that will have no need to have a PC. ... That's what we all really want—we all want one device that can ... provide us with all the peripheral connections we need."

When speaking about BlackBerry, Heins never refers to it as a smartphone company. Instead, he's repeatedly says that BlackBerry plans to be the "mobile computing" leader. This idea of a single "mobile brain" serving as the connecting point to all that we connect to is what he's referring to. And it's not at odds with how tablets are used.

The future of tablets may be the same sorts of benefits but from an evolved form factor.

"Over the next three to five years, tablets have a secure growth curve ahead," Strategy Analytics Executive Director Neil Mawston told eWEEK. "A lot of the growth in tablets is coming from notebook and netbook replacement, so there's plenty of growth available for tablets into the foreseeable future."

The Business Case for Tablets

Regarding the longer-term view, Mawston said that if bendable and rollable screens are coming, "then the business case for tablets does become a little shakier."

Mawston points to the NEC Medias W as an early example. "It's basically a 4-inch smartphone that becomes a 6-inch tablet—two devices in one," he said.

In January, NTT Docomo announced the Medias W in Japan, and in February it showed it off at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona, Spain.

The Medias W features two 4.3-inch qHD fully color displays that can fold back-to-back, for a traditional smartphone size, but also be folded out to use side-by side. When watching a movie, the image can use both screens (it reportedly takes a few minutes for the eye to stop noticing the seam in the middle). When emailing, users can preview emails on one side and see their inbox on the other; turn the phone around, and a new email message can appear in the top screen and a keyboard on the bottom.

The phone can be folded tent style, so a user can watch a video hands-free. Press a button, and the video can also play on the opposite display, so someone sitting across from the user can watch on his own screen. Clearly, it presents a lot of options and a lot of screen real estate.

Apple is rumored to be working on flexible displays, and Samsung has already showed off its Youm line of smartphones and tablets, which feature displays made of thin plastic, rather than glass. While, like a photo negative, the plastic can't be folded, it can be rolled.

But those developments are still years off (at least three years, according to the president of Corning, which makes Gorilla Glass for smartphones and has developed an ultra-slim flexible product called Willow Glass).

That leaves plenty of time for tablet deployments—and developments. Forrester expects three-quarters of a billion tablets to be in use by 2016, and for tablet makers to sell more than 375 million units that year—one-third of which will be purchased by businesses for employees.

Tablets enable workers to connect from more locations at more times, giving them access to the apps and relevant information they need, says Forrester. In this way, "tablets accelerate the rise of the anytime, anywhere information worker."

Gownder even disputes the idea of tablets as "consumption" versus "creation devices," pointing out that consuming, or accessing, the right data at the right moment has a deep impact, from sales associates being able to interact with customers from out behind a counter to doctors accessing patient health records for a more accurate diagnosis.

"Tablets are being used dynamically and deeply for a wide variety of work-related applications," Gownder has advised. Among those who can take advantage of tablets' best features, "tablets hold their own (and better) compared with traditional laptops in app usage. All of these activities, whether 'creation' or 'consumption,' are driving worker productivity."


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