Tablets: business tools or just consumer toys?
The technology market has a habit of taking things we never knew we needed and quickly turning them into essentials. Smartphones are an obvious example.
However, most new products are just evolutionary developments. Often gadgets get thinner and smarter, but they are fundamentally just better versions of the same thing. Every now and then though, a whole new product category comes along. Tablets are a prime example. They aren’t phones, though they can run many of the same applications. They aren’t laptops, though they can perform many of the same tasks.
Why would we need an in-between tablet device when we already have a smartphone and a laptop? How can I justify it as a business expense? Let’s start by comparing the benefits and limitations of laptops and smartphones.
Firstly I have to confess I was initially quite skeptical when the original iPad was announced two years ago. I already had a laptop I carried with me when I needed to work on the move, and my phone could do everything I needed in the way of day-to-day portable technology. Yet within a few days of first trying one, my iPad had proven itself indispensible. Now to the comparisons:
Compared to a smartphone
I love my smartphone. I love the fact that something small enough to slip into my pocket can do so much: I can check my email, look things up on the web, check my schedule, consult a map, access key documents, record a meeting, make some notes...
But as handy as it is, a tiny phone screen isn’t the ideal way to do many of those things; it’s just a compromise we accept in return for the convenience of the portability. And when we want to do meatier things, such as write a report or article, we turn to our laptops.
Compared to a laptop
Laptops are also fantastic inventions. Being able to work as effectively at home, in a coffee shop, on a plane or in a hotel on the other side of the world makes a huge difference to our productivity. But laptops too have their downsides, three of them in particular.
First, portability. While laptops have become thinner and lighter, they are still not things you carry casually. Even netbooks are a bit heavy to take everywhere as a matter of routine.
Second, sluggish sleep and resume times. If you’re walking down the street and get a call from a client to arrange an appointment, you’re far more likely to check your schedule on your phone than to find somewhere to put down your bag, pull out your laptop, wait the 20-30 seconds it takes to wake up, enter your password and pull up your calendar. If you’re doing two or three stops on the tube, a laptop doesn’t really let you get a couple of paragraphs of that report written because by the time it’s on your lap with the document open in front of you, it’s time to put it away again.
Third, battery-life. Laptop batteries are much better than they used to be, but manufacturers’ estimates are still extremely unrealistic, based on continuous use at 50% brightness. Turn the brightness up to a usable level and cycle through the sleep/wake cycles several times in a day as you do while out-and-about, and you’ll typically get half the claimed life.
How does it compare?
My iPad addresses all three issues. Portability? While it won’t fit into a jacket pocket, it fits easily into just about anything else: a handbag, manbag, portfolio case and so on. It also weighs next to nothing, so it really is a device you can routinely take with you everywhere.
And yet, unlike a phone, the screen size is large enough to see your entire week’s schedule at a glance, to see the whole of a typical business email and to view a readable version of a webpage. You can read the small print on a presentation slide, and see a few paragraphs at a time of a business document. In short, it’s everything a phone screen isn’t.
Sleep/resume times? With true instant-on and instant-off if you have a spare few minutes on that quick hop on the tube, or sitting in the client’s reception waiting to be collected, you can use that time productively.
Battery-life? The iPad claims ten hours, and genuinely does deliver that at a sensible brightness level. In fact, I used mine one day for 9.5 hours and it was still showing 27% battery-life remaining when I got home.
Can it be a genuine business tool?
So, what can and can’t it do? The bad news is that a tablet isn’t a netbook. It won’t run the same software as your laptop.
The good news is it often doesn’t need to: there are plenty of apps that are fully-compatible with your normal software. Matching your email across different devices is a good example of this.
Safeserve’s own email service works well with the built-in email, contacts, calendars and tasks of all common tablet devices, including the iPad. Emails arrive simultaneously on my iPad, iPhone and my PC back at the office and when I delete an email on any, it’s deleted on all. Make a diary entry on one and it appears on all. So when I’m on the move I’m always in sync with my office.
In the case of the iPad, if you have documents in Microsoft Word format, you can use Pages to view and edit them, saving them back into standard .docx format. Numbers does the same for Excel documents, and Keynote for PowerPoint documents. For Android, Google Docs does the job of all three and more, and is becoming a popular alternative for many people. It is also strongly rumoured that Microsoft will be releasing Office for iPad and Android in the future.
The even better news is that app pricing on tablets is much closer to that of phone apps than PC software. Pages, Numbers and Keynote are just £7 each, and most apps cost considerably less than that, including a whole bunch for free including Google Docs.
How usable are those apps? I have written literally tens of thousands of words using Pages on my iPad. Not only that, but I did so using the on-screen keyboard! I was sure I’d need to buy a Bluetooth keyboard for it, but the touch keyboard with the built-in auto-correct feature works remarkably well. This also means you don’t need to compromise the portability by carrying a separate keyboard.
You can also use a tablet as an electronic brochure to show off your company’s products or services. Apps like Google Docs and, for the iPad, GoodReader let you store hundreds of PDF documents all neatly organised in folders. Not only do product photos look stunning on the hi-res screen, but there is also the image benefit: using a cutting-edge device can make you look suitably upmarket and hi-tech!
As tablets become more widely used, securing sensitive business and personal information should be the first priority of every tablet owner.
Firstly you should set a secure password for the device. With an iPad, go into “Settings”, “General”, “Turn Passcode On”, and set “Simple Passcode” off.
If you use an iPad you should also follow the instructions to turn on iCloud and Find My iPad. This will allow you to remotely track down the location of your iPad, lock it, and even wipe it of all data.
Tablet devices like the iPad can be used as effective business tools by capitalising on advantages in portability, usability and battery-life. We believe that they will become an integral part of many business professionals’ working lives.
And let’s not entirely forget personal use. When you’re sitting on a plane for ten hours or stuck in a hotel room for a few days, it’s not unreasonable to use your tablet to kick back and enjoy watching a movie or read an entertaining book.