When you talk to IT pros and business managers about tablet computers, the first question they tend to ask is, "Looks cool, but what I do with it?" This conversation has been happening for a decade since Microsoft's pen-based Tablet PC was introduced at Comdex 2001. There, Bill Gates declared, "Within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America."
That turned out to be a false prophesy. Microsoft's tablet never attracted a mass audience, although it has gained some niche adoption in industries such as health care, field service, and hospitality.
However, the Apple iPad and the new breed of slate computers that are hitting the market in 2010 are looking to revive the tablet concept. They are doing it with a lighter, thinner form factor that uses a touch-based interface rather than pen computing.
It's way too early to predict whether the new tablets will be successful, but it's easy to imagine some of the usage scenarios for them in the business world. Here are five to consider:
5. Replace 200-page business documents
Large business documents waste a lot of paper. Most of these tend to be legal documents that people never read from cover-to-cover, but when you have meetings to discuss any kind of major business deal the piles of paper can quickly get out of hand.
While some of these types of documents have already moved to PDF, that requires people to bring a laptop into the meeting to read the PDF. That can sometimes stifle the intimacy of the meeting. Slate computers that can lay flat on the table could be more conducive to an open discussion. There's also a security implication. If a company has sensitive documents that it wants to share with a potential partner, but doesn't want to email the documents, a company-owned slate computer could be used to display the big documents for guests to flip through, but all the data on the slate would remain in company hands.
4. Business reading and audiobooks for road warriors
Frequent business travelers often have a briefcase full of newspapers, magazines, and books that they want to catch up during a trip. Plus, they also usually carry on iPod with a few audiobooks and/or podcasts on it. The new tablet computers could offer the opportunity to consolidate this media experience into a single device, if newspapers follow the lead of The New York Times and magazines follow the lead of Sports Illustrated. Of course, the digitization process is already in full swing for books, with ebook apps for Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Apple's iBookstore.
3. "Back of the Napkin" sketches
With his "Back of the Napkin" concept, Dan Roam has successfully convinced a lot of companies and professionals to draw simple pictures to help solve problems and sell ideas. However, integrating these pictures into standard business processes and communications isn't always as simple as it should be. It's easy to draw these pictures on a whiteboard, but then you have to take a picture of the whiteboard if you want to circulate it. With built-in drawing tools like the ones in the iPad, it's about to get a lot easier to quickly draw simple pictures and circulate them digitally.
2. Small-scale presentations
While projectors and slide presentations have their place - especially for large meetings - there is also the opportunity to bring those same types of powerful visuals to smaller meetings, even as small as 1-on-1s. With a slate computer in hand, an employee could go to another employee's office and quickly show off a PowerPoint file, a Back of the Napkin sketch, a set of images, or several product mockups on a dev server. This kind of show-and-tell could streamline idea-sharing and amp up innovation. While all of this is possible with a laptop, the slim form factor of slates lend themselves to better portability and show-and-tell.
1. Conference room computing
One of the common behaviors in many of today's corporate conference rooms is to come in, sit down, and lay down your smartphone on the table. Smartphones have become our way to stay connected, send short messages, and look up information while in the middle of a meeting. The one thing you can't really do with a smartphone is to easily share any information you found with the rest of the people in the meeting, because the smartphones screens are so small.
That's why slate computers could become the conference room PCs of choice. People could use them to access documents, emails, images, and illustrations needed for the meeting. A presenter could send a PowerPoint file before a meeting and attendees could access the PPT from their personal slates during the meeting, and make their own notes on it. And, employees in the meeting could share visuals with the rest of the people in the meeting just by pulling up the data on-screen and then flipping the slate around.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.