In part 1 of this article, Choosing a tablet PC for mobile unified communications, we look at the state of the tablet PC market and how tablets might be used in the enterprise. Their purpose in your environment will play a significant role in the type of enterprise tablet PC you choose, given the range of options for any given feature. When doing an enterprise tablet PC comparison, you'll want to consider a number of factors, including the following:
Screen size: As with smartphones, there is a correlation between the size of a tablet PC's screen and the device itself; the bigger the screen, the bigger the device. Bigger screens also call for bigger batteries, so they are heavier, too. Dell has gone smallest with the 5" screen on the Streak, while Avaya and Lenovo are in the 12" range. For a nurse in a health care environment doing bedside data capture and prescription dispensing, smaller is better. Video conferencing (with any degree of clarity), on the other hand, calls for a bigger screen.
Operating system: Apple launched the enterprise tablet PC wars with its proprietary iOS, but Android has become the default favorite for non-Apple tablets. Certainly, we need the same type of management and security features we look for in smartphones, particularly password protection, on-board encryption, policy enforcement and remote wipe. Those elements are increasingly finding their way into both iOS and Android. With their penchant for bulletproof security, we can assume RIM is including those on their ONX-based PlayBook.
The other big issue related to the operating system will be consistency in the user interface. The initial assumption is that users prefer the same interface on their enterprise tablet PC that they have on their smartphone. That might not be universally true, as I like my BlackBerry as a smartphone and my iPad as a tablet. If the need for a consistent user interface proves to be the case, then HP might be in a tough spot trying to sell a WebOS-based tablet for which there are no smartphones. RIM might also be challenged emulating the OS 6 interface on the Torch touch screen smartphone to the ONX-based PlayBook tablet.
Connectivity: While the mobile operators would love to charge us for yet another mobile data plan, Wi-Fi support has been a common element on tablets. Assuming that they will be used in an office environment (or in the increasing number of places that offer free Wi-Fi access), Wi-Fi's a good choice. However, some still seem to get it wrong. Avaya's tablet supports 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11n, which seems to indicate it lacks a 5 GHz radio. As the standard recommendation for 802.11n deployments is to use the more spacious and less congested 5 GHz band, it looks like they bet on the wrong horse in that race.
If video is in the picture, the cellular interfaces will have to include 4G; currently, no tablet device sports a 4G interface. That requirement will increase now that 4G services from Sprint (WiMAX) and Verizon (LTE) will be deployed to roughly 100 million people by year's end. RIM's approach is interesting in that the PlayBook does not support a 3G interface itself, but connects to the cellular network through the user's BlackBerry smartphone. Making tethering standard could yield a cost advantage, but eliminating 3G connectivity for non-BlackBerry smartphone users will reduce the potential market for the PlayBook.
Using enterprise tablet PCs for unified communications
The utility of any enterprise communications device should be defined by its applicability in an overall move to unified communications (UC), which combines voice, video, email, text and collaboration in an integrated presence-enabled environment. The traditional PBX business is in the midst of a major migration to IP-based products that support UC capabilities, and those legacy providers are now being challenged by disruptive options like Microsoft's Lync (formerly Office Communication Server or OCS) and IBM's Sametime.
Recognizing the growing importance of mobile devices, extending and integrating the user's UC-based communications to smartphones has been a central theme. With the advent of tablets, those too will need to be brought under the UC umbrella, and UC vendors will need to develop software that allows users to synchronize their mobile and desktop systems, answer or transfer voice and video connections between their desktop hard or softphone and their mobile device, and to flexibly send and receive emails and texts regardless of the device they were originally created or received on.
Given the excitement created by the iPad and its successors, it is safe to assume that tablets will be the next major computing platform we will be called upon to support. Tablets will not replace desktop or laptop computers or smartphones; rather, these will be yet another communications-enabled device that will fill a new and not yet fully defined role in the enterprise.
For the moment, enterprise vendors seem to be dazzled by the iPad and are more interested in getting on the bandwagon than helping enterprise buyers understand how we can best put these new tools to business use. However, for both knowledge workers and a wide range of task workers, enterprise tablet PCs hold the promise of integrating computer and communications access in a wide variety of applications. It's time for enterprise buyers to get beyond the commercials and start thinking in more concrete terms about how tablets will be used as real applications enablers.
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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.