Are low cost tablets in the enterprise a good thing?

April 28, 2012
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People recognize the value of a tablet but often are faced with a choice of buying an iPad or a notebook in their current refresh cycle. The two products are complimentary in my opinion but many institutions, small business owners and consumers alike, generally can't afford to buy both at the same time.

Inevitably we will see more lower cost tablets hit the market. Many will be running Android, which has its own security and management issues, but we may even see some aggressive price points with Windows 8 tablets as well.

One device that is getting attention as of late is the rumored Google Nexus tablet. Andy Rubin, the head of Android for Google, has stated that this year is a make or break year for Android tablets. The Nexus tablet, by all accounts, is going to be Google's flagship Android tablet with features it hopes its hardware partners take note of in their own product designs. We believe that no matter which OEM makes this tablet, Google is going to be very aggressive with the price. The tablet will most likely come in at or below $199 and could possibly be priced as low as $149 if some sort of advertising subsidy strategy is employed.

The arrival of these low cost tablets combined with many business customers wanting to deploy tablets could entice many currently sitting on the tablet fence to check it out. The million dollar, or make that the $199, question then is, Will these low cost tablets be worth the investment for a business environment? I think the answer is no and yes.

My concern with lower cost tablets and their use in work or personal computing environments has less to do with the software and more to do with the hardware. Ultimately you get what you pay for and hardware that gets to the price points that we consider "low cost" are simply not built to last. Many enterprise and even small business IT managers could have their hands full with low cost tablets if the hardware keeps failing or becomes unreliable and in need of constant support.

One justification for buying them could be that they are cheap enough to replace regularly. Realistically in an environment like a mobile field force or sales force worker I would recommend not cutting corners on cost and spend the money to deploy devices that will last.

Where low cost tablets could shine

In what situations can low cost tablets be a good value then in a business setting? The answer in my opinion is in environments where the devices are stationary rather than used as personal computers. Places like point of sale retail, or other environments where the device is mounted or fixed to a position.

I have seen in a number of examples of iPad's mounted to walls at retail showcasing products or displaying a message. I have seen iPad's fixed to tables in boutique restaurants running web-based software to take orders or browse menu items. In these scenarios the iPad fixed or mounted is actually overkill for the use case it is fulfilling. It is in these situations that a low cost tablet could be of value to a business owner to take advantage of a tablet form factor. 

I could see another type of tablet on the horizon that could be of interest to the business audience, specifically devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note or Note Tablet. These devices are built more with a pen / stylus interface in mind for note taking, marking up of documents, images, and other digital media.

The iPad, from Apple's perspective, has shied away from building full pen computing support. There are of course many good Styli available for the iPad, but because pen support is not built into the OS layer of iOS those solutions are still sub par when compared with a device built with pen support holistically.

I could see tablets which have Web browsers, email, and a few other core applications but most importantly full support for pen integration, being a useful solution for many business and knowledge workers who still use an input device like a pen as a core part of their job.

Microsoft has the lead

This is actually an area where I think Microsoft has a lead and I think their investments in developing digital ink technology may pay off for them in Windows 8 tablets. I see and hear demand in many different verticals for quality pen support with tablets and Windows 8 tablets may be the right devices for this segment of the market.

Personally I have wanted a simple but efficient way to take digital notes which can be organized and searched. I still take hand written notes quite a bit and many of the more pen and stylus-based tablets are of interest to me. I expect quite a bit more innovation in this space as tablet manufacturers look to carve out niche's in the marketplace for their hardware.

Low cost tablets could be the right solution for many market segments or specific verticals. But remember, just because a tablet is cheap doesn't mean its the right solution. I recommend to anyone deploying or considering deploying tablets to examine how the devices will be used then make the right investment for the job the device is going to accomplish.

In addition to a lower price, the 7-inch Android tablets do have one advantage over the larger iPad in that they are more portable. It's also worth mentioning that while the iPad isn't the cheapest alternative and likely never will be, the older iPad 2 at $399 is at least $100 of the newest model and should be fine for what most businesses need a tablet for. 

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