23 September 2010

To Tablet or not to Tablet: That is the (Business) Question

We’re all captivated by the wave of mobility and collaboration options promised by tablet devices.  Looking at current and coming tablet offers, will they begin to deliver on these dreams?
There are two decisions to be made before tablet-ing – the physical device and application interface.  Avaya has the right idea in (ultimately) separating the tablet hardware from its Flare user experience.  Alternatively, Cisco seems to be following Apple’s example of tight integration between hardware and software. However, the consumer world is less phased by Apple’s frequent refreshes than IT buyers.  Given glacial business tech refresh rates (10 years for a desk phone and 3-4 for a laptop), will too tightly integrated tablets hamstring software innovation to support longer-lived devices?  As a cautionary tale, 2011 is the 10-year anniversary of the Apple iPod; that first model is as sexy as grandma and it’s been left woefully behind in features. This hardware/software dilemma will be explored once the Avaya and Cisco applications are generally available later in the year and if/when their software is jail-broken from their proprietary devices.
From a tablet perspective, the most successful to date is of course the Apple iPad.  What was an indolent company before the iPod, Apple has become the global style and function trendsetter.  Everyone else is a wannabe.  For many, it’s the Geek equivalent of a Chanel purse; tribal iconography manifesting personality traits.  For developers, it’s a portal to what could be; launching fixes to unspoken problems.
But while Apple embraces the consumer, it eschews the enterprise, leaving developers to “date-rape” a reticent device.  Tablets announced by Cisco and Avaya are all business; but so far these offers seem more about these vendors’ rabid desire to keep desktop phone sales cha-chinging along than the needs of customers.  Next week’s rumored announcement of a Blackberry tablet may create a hybrid consumer/business device.
Like all technology, the prefect tablet solution is, like King Arthur’s Avalon, elusive.  There are always tradeoffs between what works, what’s possible and a vendor’s business case.  The elegance of iPad running Android with a USB and without the iron-fist of Steve Jobs, for example. 
Real Estate and Resolution
Screen size is a Goldilocks parable, what’s too big, too small and just right?  Unlike the consumer world where entertainment drives this decision, in business, applications and environment will be the drivers.  The Avaya tablet is big, making “pocketability” impossible and desktops more crowded. Alternatively, the 5” Dell Streak is too small for meaningful transactions in either desktop or mobile settings. The Lenovo X201 tablet is big but it’s also a computer thus combining two devices.  When docked, Cisco’s Cius is an extension of their desk phone design language.
Combined with screen size is resolution – or how much data is displayed without flicking and scrolling. iPad provides an increasingly middle-of-the-road resolution, but the coming “Retina” display technology looks to more than double today’s resolution enabling it to again present the most data on a single screen. This means text-based applications are more easily read and graphically-based apps, like those promised in telemedicine, will look more vibrant and detailed.  Again I dream, what would Avaya’s spiffy Flare interface look like on the smaller, lighter iPad with Retina display or the Lenovo X201 laptop?
Operating Systems
For the most part this is a two-horse race between Apple’s iOS and Android.  While Blackberry will be apparently using a proprietary OS for their tablet, this race will ultimately be won by Android because of its availability on so many devices.  In the cellular world, Android is already outselling iOS/iPhone due to its breadth of offerings. Both Apple’s iOS and Blackberry’s QNX-based OS are essentially a one-trick-ponies running on dedicated devices.  It’s a replay of the device-independent Microsoft Windows versus Mac wars.  It worked for consumer-driven music players; but will it fly in the enterprise and will Blackberry be able to stem its smartphone erosion?
For business, the reason to care is the ability to develop applications.  So far, Android may have a smaller app store but the relative ease of development on Android outstrips Apple for business use.  Android developers also worry less about the kinds of capricious moves by Apple that randomly shut down features they depend on. 
Weight and Battery
Weight and battery life impact mobility. The pack today seems to float around 1-1.5 pounds (.45-.68 kg) with the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Avaya tablet occupying opposite ends of the Weight Watchers scale.  As I’ve said, the Lenovo X201 tablet, like Avaya’s tablet weighs 3-ish pounds but it’s a full-fledged laptop computer.
Battery life will always be hotly debated because longevity depends on the applications run.  That said, I feel the bare-minimum for a mobile device is a user-replaceable battery (sorry Apple) and at least a work shift of battery life.  In truly mobile work environments like hospitals, retail and road warriors, users will not be happy about slapping in new batteries throughout their shift. With the exception of the Avaya tablet possibly burning through three batteries in a shift, most tablets either achieve this today or are close; at least on paper.
Both Avaya and Cisco are pushing hard on the (battery eating) HD video collaboration aspects of their tablets.  Is HD necessary?  Obviously in large telepresence environments it is critical to suspending disbelief to create the “almost there” experience.  While both Cius and Flare look great, on a 7” to 10” display is HD conferencing necessary?  I’m pretty sure that I won’t be swept away by the moment with a 1/20th scale face on a handheld tablet. (HD application sharing, absolutely; my manager’s face, not so much.)  It’s also VERY difficult to fake working when fellow conferencees see the beach in the background.
Connectivity equals mobility, productivity and cost
It’s a given that all tablets will have WiFi which provides mobility either on campus or in WiFi hotspots (like home).  But cellular connectivity to 3G/4G networks offers the most (but far from 100%) mobility. Most tablets so far have settled on the GSM-based data networks prevalent globally.  This leaves CDMA holdouts Verizon and Sprint largely in the tablet cold.  In the US, one of the reasons Verizon’s data service isn’t pilloried like AT&T’s is because there simply haven’t been as many data-hogging devices on it…yet.
But beyond bandwidth is the data plan cost.  Some carriers allow for a single account to be used by several devices simultaneously (tethering), saving considerable costs for those with cell phones, laptops and tablets at their disposal.  Apple/AT&T is not one of them but Blackberry will apparently be forcing tethering on users requiring them to have both a Blackberry smartphone and tablet; risky.  The Avaya tablet’s USB dongle approach allows pass-the-dongle sharing but lacks simultaneousness.  Cius probably requires its own account.  The Samsung Galaxy Tab won’t be sold outside cellular carriers, completely locking in users.
At first glance, both the Avaya and Cisco tablets are fantastically overpriced given most consumer alternatives. But remember the discounts.  If Cius has a list of $1,000, the street price may be $500-$650.  The same is true of Avaya where discounts of 40-50% may also be seen.  The Lenovo X201 combines tablet and laptop very well and at ~$2,000 may be a best-of-both-worlds bargain.
Tablet as cloud portal
A truly useful mobile tablet must combine not only the conferencing and collaboration applications touted by Cisco and Avaya but the myriad of business applications used daily. The best way to deliver these would be natively, but that’s unrealistic.  The tablet may be the avenue for delivering applications via the cloud or virtual desktop (assuming uninterrupted connectivity).  Citrix is available for the iPad which gives access to all applications without reworking them for a new operating system.  Cisco’s solution for customers will surely be to push WebEx. 
A perfect example for virtualized applications is in healthcare.  Ripe for a tablet but chock full of regulations.  Many countries have strict regulations protecting patient data.  In the US, the HIPPA rules promote the use of virtual desktops to eliminate local data storage to reduce exposure from theft.  No need to build Android and iOS versions for Soarian, Cerner and Epic; in fact, many already use virtualized desktops.
However what sounds perfect on paper is often less so in reality.  Virtualized applications have their own issues with cost, latency, and poor graphics. Newer iterations from Citrix and VMware claim to fix many of these issues, but it remains to be seen how they respond in specific use cases.
With all new things, the bleeding edge paves the way for the rest of us.  The business tablet of today isn’t evolving, it’s still being incubated.  And remember, tablets are as much about their hardware as their software.  Evaluated in detail when available, the Avaya Flare interface is pretty darn cool; but the tablet is a fat battery-eater with a dongle (each time I type “dongle” it feels like I have Tourette’s).  Right now, I’d wait for Flare on a Lenovo X201 tablet. It’s the same tubby three-pounds but it’s a real business touchscreen computer with an 8-hour battery that would combine a computer and a desk phone – dongle-lessly!  The Cisco Cius?  It’s sexy, but I’ll wait until my corner office has been repainted and have more time to be wow-ed by the interface.  And that’s the bottom line, if you can’t wait, understand your needs and match them with the best combination of hardware and software available.  Next up, the software and applications.

Apple iPad
Cisco Cius
Avaya Flare*
Dell Streak
Lenovo X201 Tablet
Samsung Galaxy Tab
Touch Screen
1024 x 768
1024 x 600
1366 x 768
800 x 480
(7” & 10” coming)
12.1”1280 x 800
7-inch, 1024 x 600
Operating System
Apple iOS
Android 2.2
Android 2.1
Android 1.6
Windows 7
Android 2.2
(.73 kg)
 (.52 kg)
3.2 lbs
(1.45 kg)
7.7 oz
3 lbs
(1.36 kg)
12.8 oz
(.37 kg)
9 hours; non replaceable
<8 hours est; replaceable
3 Hours
<9 hours; replaceable
8 hours; replaceable
7 hours
1GHz Apple A4 custom
Intel Atom 1.6 GHz
Intel Atom
Qualcomm ARM 1 GHz
Intel i7
·      3.5mm
·      Micro-SIM
·      3 USB 2.0
·      3.5mm
·      GigE/PoE
·    DisplayPort
· USB 2.0
· 3.5mm
·      USB 2.0
·      MicroSD
·      3.5mm
·   GigE
·   3 USB 2.0
·   VGA
·   SD/MMC
·     3.5mm
No (expected in next iteration)
·   Front: HD 720p
·   Back 5MP
· Front: 5MP 720p
·     Front: VGA
·     Back: 5MP
Front: 2MP
·   Front: 1.3 MP
·   Back: 3MP
720p; H.264
720p; H.264
720p; H.264
H.263 / H.264
SIP Support
802.11 abgn
802.11 abgn
802.11 bgn
2.1 + EDR
3.0 + EDR
NA; dongle
Conferencing / collaboration
Yes; TelePresence
Yes; Flare
Depends on app used
Email, IM
Email, IM
SMS, MMS, Email, IM
Depends on app used
Email, SMS
Deskphone Replacement
Yes, optional handset
Yes, optional handset
Could be
Computational device
Yes; proprietary apps
Yes; cloud-based apps
No; limited access, little creation
No; consumer entertainer
Yes; it’s a real laptop; MS Office, etc.
Info presenter  or collaborator
App Store
Apple iTunes/App Store
·      Cisco Apps
·      Partner Apps
·      Android Mkt
· Avaya Apps
·  Partner Apps
·  Android Mkt
·     None
·  Android Mkt
Hard Drive
Up to 64GB
Swappable 32GB (1 MicroSD)
Up to 500GB
·   WiFi: $500-$700
·   3G: $630-$830
$1,000 (est)
$2,000 +$1,750 for Flare
~$2,000 loaded
NA; set by cell carriers. (4Q).

* Avaya doesn’t want their tablet called “Flare” but “Avaya Desktop Video Device for Flare” doesn’t roll off the tongue.

1 comment:

  1. Contrarian, welcome to the blogosphere. This is a good analysis, but you miss one thing. Comparison of the applications. It's all about the apps!

    IPads are doing well in the corporate world as they are leveraging the 200,000 apps already in the iPhone ecosphere. Apple released iWork as a launch iPad app for a reason. The same goes for Citrix style apps to access corporate PCs. Users need access to existing line of business applications.

    Enterprises will not forklift away from Exchange or SharePoint just so they can use a Cisco Cius.

    It will be interesting to see what happens when a decent Windows slate appears. It will have domain join, MS Office and access to LOB apps natively.

    Also, you should check out the Lenovo S10-3T tablet. It's $500 US and has a capacitive touchscreen along with a real keyboard. It runs Windows 7 really well, even with an Atom processor. A friend has one and compared to the iPad, is just as fast. He uses OCS and Skype voice and video just fine.

    As it already has a built in camera, 160Gb storage, USB ports and a keyboard, it makes it a great alternative to an iPad or compared to a proprietary Cius or Flare.