I’ve taken some criticism for frequently citing the fast boot times, purpose-built operating systems, and light weights of the current crop of consumer tablets as key selling points, even to enterprise customers. There’s a conceptually sound counterargument that near-instantaneous startup times don’t make much difference when newer laptops boot in a dozen seconds, and that “small” and “light” don’t hold a candle to a full-fledged laptop at a similar or lower price.
There are arguably two schools of thought on tablet computing. The first sees tablets as a shrunken version of a desktop computer. They should have similar capabilities as the average desktop, with a smaller form factor and a longer battery life than the average laptop. This school of thought carefully reconciles the inevitable trade-off of portability and longevity for computing power and features, immediately dismissing tablets as “underpowered” for some applications or classes of users. Here, tablets — especially in the case of non-Windows tablets — seem more of a distraction. They’re essentially incompatible devices that will require software rewrites and deliver more hurdles than benefits.
The other school of thought sees tablets as a different class of computing device. Rather than serving as a miniature desktop of sorts, tablets are more of a personal assistant or information delivery device. Here, information and data gathering are a priority, and since applications require different design and data, incompatibility with existing applications is less of a concern than how to most effectively present enterprise data on the device.
The priorities of both schools of thought and the conclusions they reach are obviously different. If you’re in the “mini desktop” crowd, you’re probably sitting out the current crop of consumer-driven tablets and waiting to see if Microsoft can deliver on the promise of Windows 8 — iPad size and speed, with legacy compatibility and support for a Microsoft infrastructure. If you’re in the “information delivery” crowd, the biggest benefit of the current crop of tablets is that they are unfettered by legacy software constraints and can be gathering or presenting data instantaneously rather than moments later. This is a truly compelling argument in field sales or service where seconds really do count.
I’m admittedly in the second school of thought, although a relatively recent convert, so I can sympathize with the other crowd’s concerns. I’ve worked with tablets for over a decade, and when the iPad arrived, I was convinced that it would fail, since it couldn’t do any “real” computing. However, after spending several months with the device and noticing an increasing interest among my clients, it’s become apparent that this is an entirely new class of device that scratches a different itch than a highly portable desktop.
Regardless of how you view tablets, there are certain tasks that are better left to desktops. I have a highly portable laptop and rarely leave on a business trip without both devices, but I find myself reaching for the tablet rather than the desktop, unless I’m doing something computationally intensive or writing, where the various hardware and software keyboards are no match for a traditional laptop. In most cases, I grab the iPad, since it’s a better device for tasks like reading articles, checking markets, browsing email, and posting quick updates. This is the traditional content consumption versus content creation argument, but for many workers, consumption is more prevalent than creation.
When considering tablet application, take a few minutes to look at the devices and how they fit into your organization from both perspectives. I’ll make an effort to consider both schools of thought as I write, and like most good arguments, the happy medium likely lies somewhere in the middle.