In previous installments of our series on tablets and small business, we've discussed the differences between the three major tablet flavours currently available.
(In short, Apple's offering is the most popular, Research In Motion has the most business-friendly tablet and Google's Android operating system is probably going to improve the fastest.)
We've also discussed the various uses for tablets at small and medium-sized businesses.
But if next-generation mobile computers are going to fully replace laptops in the workplace, a number of other factors have to play a part. Four things need to happen before business owners will feel comfortable making tablets their primary mobile devices:
1. Ubiquitous cloud computing
In some industries, the move to put software and data on outsourced servers is already under way. But more companies have to put their trust in those solutions if tablets are to become an effective business tool.
The move to the cloud eases some security concerns business owners have with tablets. If the devices simply access data from a server, rather than store sensitive information on their hard drives, they are less likely to divulge corporate information that is stolen or misplaced.
But cloud computing also makes tablets more versatile. Many current models have fairly closed operating systems, meaning corporate IT departments can't install whatever software they choose. That becomes less of an issue if the tablets can be used to access software that resides on the cloud. Many third parties have designed apps that allow mobile computers to do just that.
It's a good bet that the iPad 3 will look a lot like the iPad 2, which itself looks a lot like the original iPad - and for good reason, Apple's best-selling tablet has become iconic. In the rest of the market, however, all bests are off.
RIM recently released the PlayBook tablet, but in just a couple of months, a new, more powerful version is expected. Google constantly updates and improves its Android operating system, which powers a variety of tablets from manufacturers such as Samsung and Motorola. Sony will soon release two Android tablets - a 9.4-inch model and a dual-screen flipbook-style device.
The net result is a tablet marketplace that's still very young and very much in flux. Until businessowners are sure that the size and type of tablet they buy today won't become obsolete tomorrow, many will likely wait for some marketplace certainty.
The good news is, that's likely to happen sooner rather than later, and by the end of the year, owners may have a much clearer picture as to whether tablet varieties will fall largely into seven-inch and 10-inch varieties, or if the tablet market will come to resemble laptops, with many different screen sizes and operating systems.
3. Cheaper data solutions
One of the biggest selling points of RIM's PlayBook - or, at least, that's what the company hopes - is the ability to "bridge" the device to BlackBerry smart phones, thereby allowing users to access the web and download information without having to buy a second data plan. Increasingly, carriers are trying to make more money off the huge amount of data many tablet users consume.
At the same time, business owners are trying to spend less money on the same thing. Expect more companies to look for solutions similar to RIM's BlackBerry bridging, as a means of reducing the continuing cost of tablets.
Some of the most popular tablet flavours give IT departments very little ability to impose certain restrictions on users, such as removing the ability to install programs or visit certain web sites. As a result, tablets are still somewhat less business-friendly than easily customizable laptops.
As tablets become a full-fledged corporate device, expect manufacturers to begin offering businesses more options when it comes to shutting down or limiting certain functions, as well as installing their own software security solutions.