Tablets, smartphones, ultra-portables, and convertibles—there are more mobile options than ever. But what gear, or mix of gear, should you recommend?
By Lauren Gibbons Paul
September 20, 2013
In the beginning of business computing, life was simple and the choices were few. The company bought a desktop PC for each of its office workers, gave everyone a telephone extension, and called it a day. Now, the proliferation of mobile devices—from smartphones to tablets to ultra-light notebooks—has everyone confused about who needs what and what the company should buy.
Channel companies that serve SMBs need to understand the different form factors in order to advise their clients on the right mix of devices to empower employees while not causing IT new headaches.
Many (if not all) employees now bring their own smartphones to the office to use for at least some work tasks, causing IT the problem of how to support disparate mobile platforms, but eliminating the need for the company to buy mobile phones. Meanwhile, most companies still buy some form of PC for their office workers, with laptops reaching prominence in the last few years due to their easy portability.
The question, then, for channel pros is whether or not their clients should add tablets like the Apple iPad or the ultra-light new notebook/tablet convertibles like the Lenovo ThinkPad Twist into the mix to give their employees easy data access on the go.
For analyst Maribel Lopez, the issue turns on tablets and whether or not SMBs should buy employees consumer tablets for work purposes that they will also carry home for personal use. Tablets bridge the worlds of phone and computer by allowing mobile data access without the need for a Wi-Fi connection. It doesn’t hurt that these iOS and Android devices look slick and are priced at less than $1,000, and some far below that mark.
“A lot of companies are buying tablets for their sales teams,” says Lopez, principal and founder of Lopez Research. Sales personnel love the ability to whip out a cool-looking device and run through a demo without needing to stop and set up a laptop. Long-Term Evolution (LTE), or 4G, tablets do not need a wireless Internet connection, enabling sales professionals and other users to participate in videoconferences with a minimum of fuss. Meanwhile, in industries such as healthcare, education, and retail, companies are increasingly tapping tablet versions of core applications to increase worker productivity.
TABLETS BY THE NUMBERS
It is not surprising, then, that businesses and individuals alike are snapping up tablets in record numbers. In fact, tablet shipments are expected to grow more than 58 percent year over year in 2013, reaching 229.3 million units, up from 144.5 million units last year, according to IDC. The analyst firm now predicts that this year tablet shipments will exceed those of portable PCs, as the slumping PC market is expected to see negative growth for the second consecutive year. Even so, IDC analyst Ryan Reith notes in the forecast that tablets will be used most often for consumer purposes, with portable PCs retaining an important role in business computing.
Giving tablets a run for their money are the so-called “ultra-portable” notebooks, which sport screen sizes of 14 inches or less and weigh less than four pounds. Several new ultra-portable models like the Acer White Touch can convert from notebook with full keyboard/processing power to tablet and back again.
“The Ultrabook convertible market is interesting for people who need both types of functionality: the mobility of the tablet but the processing power and data access of the laptop,” says Lopez. Anyone who needs to get serious word processing or spreadsheet work done will need this sort of device, she adds.
This is exactly why Enderle Group Principal Analyst Rob Enderle believes tablet sales will cool down quickly for businesses. Enderle also believes the tablet is a “tweener” product that will phase out as ultra-portable convertibles take hold on one side and smartphones reach up to become “phablets” on the other. The Samsung Galaxy Note is already a popular example of the latter. Everyone will always need a mobile phone, he says, and they will always need a PC for most office work.
To Enderle, that spells doom for tablets, except those that are “purpose-driven,” such as the Healthcare Tablet from Motion Computing. “The market doesn’t like more than two [mobile devices],” he says.
Lopez, however, feels tablets and ultra-portables can and will coexist peacefully. “Businesses might buy tablets for some roles and convertibles for others. Many people will have a laptop plus a tablet. People who are mobile will get tablets,” she predicts.
That will be true only within businesses that buy consumer devices like tablets for their employees in the first place. Some companies have shied away from that on principle. “Some clients are asking for our advice on what mobile devices they should purchase for their employees, but more often the employees are bringing their own devices from home,” says Jim Turner, president of Hilltop Consultants, in Bethesda, Md. For Turner, this topic is about BYOD much more than selecting which mobile device to purchase.