Tablets are rapidly hitting commodity pricing in the mainstream, with Google's recently announced Nexus 7 tablet flying off the shelves to the accolades of the technology press. While the $199 price point of the Nexus is compelling to mainstream consumers and enterprises, there's another story on the lower end of the tablet universe, one that has enterprise implications a bit different from those of the Nexus.
While off-brand tablets have existed since the iPad began making headway — many containing hacked-together operating systems and questionable hardware — several of the $100 tablets, most of them originating from China, are becoming increasingly capable. Nearly all are built from Google's Android operating system, providing instant compatibility with a wide library of applications. Unlike the iPad, the majority of these low-end tablets have standards-based connectivity and expansion, sporting everything from Wi-Fi to USB ports and memory card readers.
While I don't suggest a $75 tablet from a no-name hardware company for the enterprise, what's exciting about these devices is that they open access to tablets to a wide variety of users, even in remote locations. Just as mobile phones largely leapfrogged mass adoption of landline telephone service, low-cost tablets have the potential to leapfrog the adoption of powerful computing. Even a $300 desktop seems extravagant when you consider an environment where portability and low cost are far more compelling features than a large screen and additional computing horsepower. Similarly, areas that lack the infrastructure to support a desktop computer could easily support a small, battery-powered device that functions well even if the lights are out.
It's unlikely that we'll see these tablets flooding the enterprise, but for companies pursuing the developing world, tablets may be a new and compelling way to reach formerly elusive customers. For enterprises, determining novel ways to reach the tablets of potential customers in the developing world may become a focus and a great opportunity on which IT and revenue-generating business units can collaborate.
With most low-end tablets running Google's Android, gaining some familiarity and internal competence with the operating system in the near term could pay dividends later, especially if your company is targeting developing markets that are likely to be affected by cheap tablets. You should also plan on creating compelling experiences that you can deliver to these device, which are likely sporting smaller screens, older and slower processors, and slow or nonexistent network connectivity. Clearly, the content heavy, always-connected applications expected by customers in the developed world will not work in this environment.
Thinking through these challenges may seem daunting, but there are novel solutions available. My favorite example of technology solving a problem in the developing world comes from United Villages, a nonprofit that created a mobile Wi-Fi "access point" on the backs of motorcycles and buses. Each day, the vehicles would download email from a central server and then drive through various villages, sending and receiving the day's email and other content as they passed through, connecting previously unreachable locations around the globe. Enterprise IT leaders will not have to go to these extremes, but just because common technologies might be uncommon in these environments, it doesn't mean that there's no way to connect with these potential customers.
The developed world has certainly taken the largest share of the benefit from tablet computing, but sub-$100 tablets may revolutionize previously unaffected communities and markets. Enterprise technologists who can cleverly leverage widespread tablet adoption, especially in the developing world, stand to gain a huge advantage over competitors.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.