The tablet revolution has been an interesting one in that it's turned the traditional evolution of technology upside down. For decades, the latest and greatest technologies were first available to the largest companies who could afford the significant price tags these new tools demanded. With tablets, however, the industry-changing iPad was targeted directly at consumers vs. previous business-centric devices. Smaller businesses sit in between the Fortune 500 behemoths and consumers and are in many ways well positioned to use tablets in their businesses. Here are a few ideas on ways to employ these devices in your company, besides the obvious content consumption and email tool.
A cheap terminal
Tablets have created an entirely new market for Point of Sale (POS) software, and many small businesses and the consumers who frequent them have encountered tablets and smartphones replacing the traditional cash register. While POS applications are nothing new to many businesses, tablets can be deployed for any application where a low-cost, connected, and interactive device is appropriate. You can use a tablet to display timed advertisements, local information, directories of services or people, or even as a makeshift kiosk at a trade show. Most of these applications used to require purpose-built hardware and software, but with a commodity or customized mount and a web application to display content, you can deploy any terminal or kiosk-based application you can imagine.
Tablets in the field
Once again, the combination of low cost, portability, connectivity, and the ability to run applications that might be as simple as a series of web-based forms makes tablets ideal for field service. If your company has a significant field sales or service force, a low-end tablet could replace a stack of service manuals with little more than a memory card loaded with PDF files, or it could be connected to existing dispatch systems and offer complex service management.
Many of the leading cloud-based CRM applications are now offering tablet applications. If your small business already uses a tool like Salesforce.com, a tablet and free download can equip salespeople with access to your CRM tool without the cost and complexity of a laptop. Combine this with the pre-installed email applications on most tablets, and you may be able to get away with tablet-only reps in many cases.
Entering the app market
If your company has a product or service that would benefit from tablet-based access, tablet software development tools are beginning to mature to the point that they're within reach of even the smallest businesses. Similarly, freelance and small development shops are broadly available to help take a concept through to a fully executed tablet or smartphone application.
Before calling the nearest development shop, make sure you consider a tablet application as you would any other new product release. How will the application generate revenue? How will you support it? Does it complement or cannibalize your existing products? If you follow the same process you would to produce any new product, the actual coding portion of tablet development is increasingly becoming a commodity that can be purchased on the open market.
While larger companies struggle with questions around managing tablets and integrating them into complex IT infrastructures, smaller companies can benefit from tablets that offer strong functionality at relatively low cost, and often with less complex maintenance and management than a PC. Like any technology purchase, consider a small pilot program and take the time to develop a thorough use case that ensures tablets will solve a business problem you're facing, rather than add another disused technology that requires costly care and feeding. With some creativity, tablets provide opportunities to SMBs that didn't exist before and allows them to exploit technology in ways their larger brethren are still struggling to implement.
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 email@example.com, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.