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Tablets: Going beyond the iPad

Shocker: Resellers cite some big orders for non-Apple tablets.

CDW Corp. got quite an order from Catalina Restaurant Group Inc.

The restaurant group, which operates eateries in California, Arizona and Nevada, tapped CDW to procure about 900 tablets, which servers now use instead of paper and pen to take orders. The deal is notable for its size and one other thing: The tablets at the table aren’t iPads. Catalina opted instead for Samsung’s Galaxy Tab.

Brian Christie, IT manager at Catalina, said he originally looked at Apple’s tablets, but found them too big and too heavy when equipped with a protective case. Samsung’s 7-inch model, on the other hand, “fit the bill perfectly,” he said.

The reseller’s job isn’t done. Having facilitated the restaurant’s volume purchase, CDW continues to provide replacement units and additional 7-inch Galaxy Tabs.

“There is definite interest from customers in the commercial, education, government and health care space for media tablets,” noted Jessica Breich, senior manager, product and partner management for CDW.

CDW’s experience isn’t an isolated case. Other resellers and integrators also report orders for tablets in the other-than-Apple category. Channel executives say customers are interested in Android-based devices such as the Galaxy, Hewlett-Packard’s TouchPad, and Cisco’s Cius tablet.

Still, those tablets have a long way to go before they approach Apple’s market share. ABI Research pegged Apple’s 2010 media tablet market share at 85%. And while Android tablets, as a group, have begun taking market share away from iPad in recent months, individual tablets have yet to make a major dent, the market research firm noted.

According to ABI, “no single vendor using Android -- or any other OS -- has been able to mount a significant challenge against it.”

To battle Apple, other tablets need to cultivate business applications in niches such as health care, resellers contend. Some VARs suggest the latest release of Google’s Android Honeycomb will give tablets equipped with that OS a lift vis-a-vis Apple.

Taking tablet orders
Lee Koepping, senior director, solutions architecture at Iron Bow Technologies, a Chantilly, Va., integrator, said his company sees demand for non-Apple tablets. He cited a recent government agency request for both iPads and Android-based tablets.

In addition, Iron Bow booked its first set of pre-orders for Cius. He said the tablets are backlogged at the moment, but he anticipates the technology to start rolling off the line in late September or October.

At PC Mall Gov Inc., the company’s non-iPad tablet focus is on HP’s TouchPad.  Alan Bechara, president of PC Mall Gov, said customers are evaluating quite a few units. He said adoption will take time as customers test the devices and get comfortable with them.

Jeff Davis, senior vice president of sales at D&H Distributing Co., also noted the need for testing. He described the non-Apple tablets as mainly a consumer play at this point. He said commercial enterprises aren’t generally early adopters. “They will want to see market acceptance and make sure the OS passes the security test,” he said. “It will take longer to catch on.”

Customers already determined to buy alternative tablets span a number of industries and use cases. In the hospitality sector, Catalina’s adoption places the tablet at the point of sale. Catalina has purchased nearly 1,200 Galaxy Tabs, three-quarters of them through CDW. The restaurant group purchased its first batch of tablets through a cell phone carrier, then switched to CDW.

The education market has also shown early interest, Breich said, citing the vertical’s busy summer buying season.

Taking on Apple
Challenging the hugely popular iPad may seem like a fool’s errand, but resellers said the competing tablets have points that distinguish them.

TouchPad, for instance, may be able to take advantage of HP’s brand recognition to penetrate the enterprise. Davis said the company’s reputation among Fortune 1000 customers give it an advantage. He suggested the TouchPad could follow iPad’s consumer-to-business path, noting that HP tablets acquired for home use may end up at work.

Koepping agreed that TouchPad could potentially make headway with commercial accounts. He cited HP’s built-in relationships with customers on both the client and data center sides.

“HP is well suited for the enterprise market,” he said. One iPad shortcoming often cited by even iPad fanboys is its lack of support for the Flash technology that runs many popular Web sites. HP plays up its Flash support as a big selling point for TouchPad.

The TouchPad’s biggest liability, as a recently released product, is a lack of apps. Koepping said the app population for the WebOS-based device has doubled over the past three weeks, but noted many of those are consumer-oriented offerings.

The shortage of WebOS apps does hurt HP, according to an HP VAR in the Midwest who requested anonymity. The reseller said health care applications could help drive sales, however.

“If I can come up with a couple of health care apps that work with Epic [Systems] or McKesson, then I think I can sell a ton [of TouchPads],” the VAR said.

Epic and McKesson sell electronic medical record systems and other health IT products.

Cisco’s Cius, meanwhile, stands out as a tablet that only targets enterprises -- especially those with Cisco gear. Koepping said Cisco aims Cius squarely at customers running Cisco IP telephony or desktop video products.

“It is somewhat of a plug-and-play device into those environments,” Koepping said.

OS improvements give other tablets a boost. The most recent update of Google’s Android Honeycomb OS has helped that tablet class gain ground against iPads, Koepping said. He said the current OS trajectory has the Android platform giving iPad a run for its money. That said, he noted iPad 3 could change the competitive mix. The release date for that device is thought to be 2012.

So, the tablet scrum will continue, although the competition among Apple’s pursuers may well be for the runner up slot.

“I think they are fighting for second place,” Davis said. “The issue is Apple is a very strong competitor. They have a product that has great customer acceptance.

John Moore is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based freelance writer, reachable

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