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If you're like me, you may have purchased one of the new tablet computers that have entered the market over the past year but aren't using it for what you originally intended. I think my daughters have logged more time on ours than either my wife or me. With their ability to deliver movies, music, books, games (Angry Birds of course!) and much more, wherever and whenever you want, tablets are a huge hit with consumer audiences. As an executive, however, I found myself wondering how tablets can be useful beyond just entertainment devices. Surely, there are businesses and situations when ultra-portable computing can bring significant business value.
As it turns out, there are many examples of where tablets make sense for business - traveling professionals, doctor's offices, distributed sales teams, field workers, etc. - but figuring out whether tablets make sense for your business is anything but easy. Just because your employees (or you) are clamoring for them, doesn't mean there is a business case for them. When should you stick with a laptop (or even a desktop) and when is a tablet the better choice?
We have worked with literally hundreds of small businesses who have asked this very question, and through those conversations we have discovered five questions that businesses need to ask themselves to determine if moving to tablets make sense. If you answer yes to any of the following questions, then you should consider tablets a business solution for your needs.
1. Does a significant percentage of our business operation take place outside of a traditional office environment?
While most companies conduct the majority of their business in a fairly traditional office setting with desks, power supplies and connectivity to the Internet and corporate networks, the fact is that most of us conduct at least some business these days in less than optimal working environments. We work at home, we work at the kids' baseball games, we work in the car. Those of us who are road warriors are familiar with the challenges of staying connected and productive on planes, trains and in cars. Even laptops can be challenging when the person in front of you reclines their seat into your laptop's monitor.
Beyond road warriors, there are many industries and companies who conduct business day-to-day with nary a cubicle in sight. Construction workers, warehousing operations, medical practices, educators, law enforcement and others conduct business every day and increasingly, technology plays a role in their work.
2. Do our "mobile" business operations benefit from access to computing devices?
While the benefit of access to computing devices for road warriors may be obvious, portable computing power is becoming critical to the business practices of many traditionally non-technical industries and workers as well. Modern ERP systems have made warehouses automated environments with workers attached to various data entry and review devices. Even on smaller scales, having technology that allows workers to enter inventory information directly into databases reduces the chance for human error and enables closer to real-time insight into your current situation.
Over the past decade, we've seen the introduction of "tough" laptops that have been hardened to take the knocks and scrapes of field work at construction sites, industrial sites and other challenging work environments. Tablets promise to revolutionize these industries again as quick, easy access to information and add-on data collectors become cheaper and less cumbersome.
3. Can our mobile business operations be served as effectively (or better) by a mobile device with a smaller form factor than a laptop?
One thing our customers have mentioned to us is that tablets are less intrusive in business conversations. Laptops, with their vertical screens create a potential obstruction between two colleagues if they are sitting opposite each other. Tablets can lie flat on a table as they are used to take notes and only lifted up as necessary to share information or offer a demonstration.
Salespeople and other executives aside, doctors and nurses are as likely to be toting a laptop or other computing device as they are a stethoscope today. For medical practices, tablets offer all the benefits of portable data entry and access to information in self-contained devices. Gone are the contamination concerns of keyboards with hard to sanitize spaces.
4. Do we have a business function for which ultra-portable computing will make a significantly positive impact on our ability to perform the function?
While computing has changed almost every business function over the decades, there are some functions that continue to evolve along with the technology that supports them. Laptops freed salespeople from being disconnected on the road and placed an exceptional wealth of data at their fingertips when speaking with clients and prospects. Laptops and high-definition monitors have enabled marketing teams to create interactive displays at tradeshows and customer gatherings.
With the advent of tablets, we are in the midst of another industry change as the ultra-portability of tablets trumps the need for greater computing power for some functions. No longer do you need to wait for a laptop to boot up. Have a last minute question before stepping into a meeting? Consult your tablet. On the golf course and need to show a potential client some figures? You're probably not lugging a laptop around but a tablet can fit right into your bag. At a tradeshow and wish you could leave the booth to network but don't want to be disconnected? Take your tablet along.
5. How much mobile computing power, connectivity and data entry are necessary?
Tablets are not a panacea, however. What you gain in portability, you give up in power to some extent. Tablets are still not as powerful as laptops for multi-tasking and hard-core number crunching.
When it comes to connectivity on tablets, you have to decide if you need access continuously and therefore need a 3G tablet or only at wi-fi hotspots. Your choice of tablets will depend on answering that question and you will be locked into that decision after the purchase. With laptops, you have a little more flexibility since you can always plug a 3G card into a laptop's USB port. Additionally, many of today's smartphones can serve as a 3G hot spot, thereby eliminating the need to sign up for multiple data contacts.
Finally, it is hard to beat a standard physical keyboard if you are performing significant amount of manual data entry. Yes, tablets can be connected to keyboards but that kind of defeats their purpose.
It is an exciting time in the world of tablet computers. The market has exploded from one available tablet to tablets from virtually every computer manufacturer over the past year. Each new tablet comes with its own strengths and weaknesses and tablet capabilities are evolving at a rapid pace. That means that once you have determined that tablets are right for your business, the next question is which tablet is right for your business. That's a topic for another article.
Scott M. Rankin is Senior Vice President, Merchandising Office Technology for Staples, Inc., where he is responsible for technology products and consumables. His team supports and extends Staples commitment to make it easy for small businesses through tech products and services that best meet the customer's needs. Learn more in stores or Staples Tablet Research Center.