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Choosing the best tablet PC for mobile unified communications

A flurry of recent tablet PC announcements has spurred some enterprise buyers to ask two key questions: What kind of tablet would users need for work, and how will tablets fit into a mobile unified communications strategy?

While tablet PCs have been around since the 1980s, they languished in the backwaters of IT until the introduction of Apple's iPad brought them to the forefront. Tablets occupy the nebulous middle-ground between smartphones and netbooks, though the reliance on touch screen technology puts them more in line with the former. However, as is often the case with mobile devices, the initial products are geared toward the requirements of the consumer market. This presents a two-fold challenge to enterprise buyers who are choosing a tablet PC: What kind of tablet will a user need for work? And how will a tablet PC fit within a mobile unified communications (UC) strategy?

Over the past six months, we have seen a flurry of tablet announcements from smartphone manufacturers, laptop manufacturers and others. Some have been announcements of "intentions," while others have been actual products (summarized in the table below). Most of the announced products will be delivered sometime next year, but it's not too early for enterprise buyers to prepare for the onslaught. Key in that planning should be preparing to support users in where and how these new platforms will help users be more productive in the three Cs: computing, communications and collaboration.

Comparison of Currently Announced Tablet Devices
  Apple
iPad
Cisco Cius RIM PlayBook Avaya DVD Samsung Galaxy Dell Streak Lenovo X201
Screen
Size
9.7"
7"
7"
11.6"
7"
5"
12.1"
Weight
1.6 lbs
1.2 lbs
0.9 lbs
3.2 lbs
0.9 lbs
0.5 lbs
3.0 lbs
O/S
iOS
Android 2.2
ONX
Android 2.1
Android 2.2
Android 1.6
Windows 7
Camera
(Front/
Back)
None
(Yet)
F/B
F/B
F
F/B
F/B
F
Wi-Fi
a/b/g/n
a/b/g/n
a/b/g/n
b/g/n
n (dual band)
b/g
a/g/n
3G
Y
Y
Thru Smartphone
No
(Dongle)
Y
Y
Y
Price
$500-
$830
$1,000
N/A
$2,000
N/A
$550
$2,000
(Loaded)

None of the tablets we've seen are geared toward heavy-duty computing, and given the overall concept, it's safe to assume that's not going to change. These are devices optimized for communications and collaboration, but within those rather broad categories, different products are staking out different parts of the landscape. The best tablet PC choice should be considered in the context of the overall move to UC, which deals with providing a presence-aware environment combining voice, video, email and text with the ability to collaborate with others using any combination of those tools.

Out of the box, all tablet devices support Web and email access, media playing and texting. Those are essentially the same functions we use on our smartphones, but the larger screen delivers a far more engaging user interface. The larger screen also allows the tablet to encroach on the eBook reader or e-reader space, and history would suggest that single-purpose devices do not fare well when faced with disruptive technologies like the tablet.

Tablets: To give and/or to receive?

Probably the biggest issue with tablets will be determining what they allow a user to do. The focus with tablets thus far has clearly been on "consuming" rather than creating content. The ads show people casually perusing their tablets while drinking coffee or engaging in video conferences (but not taking notes). I'd like that job!

The data input capability of most tablets is on par with touch screen smartphones, which is to say it is abysmal. Whether we're talking about knowledge workers in an office or health care professionals in a clinical setting, users have to record things, and touch-screen typing simply won't cut it. If that input can be restricted to "check-a-box" applications, a touch screen can be great. However, in any complex environment, there will be some amount of free form text or graphic information (e.g. "box- and line-diagrams") that must be captured. In designing mobile health care applications, we spend a lot of time defining what check-a-box options to put on the screen, but there's still a requirement for some amount of chart notes.

Next: What to look for in an enterprise tablet PC

About the author:
Michael Finneran is an independent consultant and industry analyst who specializes in wireless technologies, mobile unified communications and fixed-mobile convergence. With more than 30 years in the networking field and a broad range of experience, Finneran is a widely recognized expert in the field. He has recently published his first book, entitled Voice Over Wireless LANs -- The Complete Guide (Elsevier, 2008). His expertise spans the full range of wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi, 3G/4G cellular, WiMAX and RFID.

This was last published in October 2010

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