The tablets are coming, even if small businesses don't know what to do with them yet.
Ever since the original iPad made its debut about a year ago, millions of consumers have lined up to purchase the next generation of mobile computers. Analysts expect tablet sales of up to 40-million units this year, compared to about 15-million last year - almost all of them iPads - and perhaps only a million the year before.
The difference is, this year a flood of new tablet models is hitting the market, with everyone from Dell to Motorola, HP to Research In Motion coming out with their own offerings. With more than 100 models due out in 2011, the tablet market is expected to become a little more fragmented this year, even as Apple continues to hold the overall lead.
But small business owners now find themselves faced with two questions:First, what exactly can they use tablets for? And second, what sort of tablet should they get?
There are no clear-cut answers to either question, but increasingly, larger corporations are starting to take advantage of tablets for a variety of purposes, and it's likely that small and medium-sized businesses will do the same.
Broadly speaking, the reasons businesses have embraced tablets can be broken down into two categories: form and function.
Some businesses have bought dozens of iPads, for example, simply to use them as a kind of eye candy. Consider the traditional stack of slightly aged magazines littering the waiting room table at your dentist's office, now replaced with a few iPads that download new editions of a few hundred magazines automatically. Or perhaps a high-end restaurant that no longer sees the need for paper menus, now that diners can watch videos of how each dish is made just by clicking on the touchscreen. In each case, the tablet is in many ways a functional improvement on the previous format, but mostly, it's being used mostly because it looks kind of cool.
Then there are the strictly functional uses. In some workplaces, companies are handing out tablets to employees as a lighter replacement for the traditional laptop. Because tablets have larger screens and better processors than most smart phones, employees can use them to perform tasks while on the go - tasks such as editing and viewing documents, which can be very frustrating to do on a three-inch BlackBerry screen.
And that's where the choice of tablet can make a big difference for business owners.
For most consumers, the sleek white iPad has come to be the defining image of what a tablet is. As such, many businesses have employed Apple's device as a customer-facing tool, be it in the form of a restaurant menu or hotel room daily newspaper. But for back-office functions, some companies may need more built-in security than what the iPad has to offer.
That's where BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion hopes to find a lucrative niche, by offering its PlayBook tablet, which comes with many of the same security features as the traditional BlackBerry.
In some cases, businesses are making use of more than one tablet model. For example, the Ritz-Carleton, a new five-star hotel in Toronto plans to use iPads as menus and customizable newspapers for customers, but the PlayBook for check-ins and customer reservations.
Of course, that's to say nothing of the several dozen tablets due out this year that are powered by Google's Android operating system, including models by Dell and Motorola. For some businesses, the cost-savings associated with some non-brand-name Android tablets may make it worthwhile to opt for one of those options, especially if the business plans to use the devices for something that isn't all that processor-intensive, such as a store of digital magazines.
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