With Apple touting enterprise iPad deployments far and wide, how are businesses really using the Apple tablet so far? Furthermore, how likely is it that tablets running Windows, Android, or other OS will be able to catch up?
In Apple’s latest earnings call in January, Apple boasted that over 80 percent of the Fortune 100 is already deploying or piloting the iPad. Meanwhile, some technology analysts and implementers question whether many huge corporate-wide iPad deployments are going to occur before the release of the iPad 2, at the very least. Yet just about everyone in a position to know agrees that the iPad is showing up in more business settings than its rivals.
The iPad is popping up in the hands of top execs across all kinds of industries right now. iPads are also appearing quite visibly in pilot implementations – or tests involving small numbers of gadgets — in fields like health care, sales, and insurance. Windows-, Android-, and RIM BlackBerry-based tablets might actually carry greater business advantages for many companies. However, it is IT departments and not end users who are most interested in alternatives to iPads, experts say.
Executives tend to be iPad fans not just because of the cool factor, but because the devices are turning into useful tools for displaying ideas and mentoring co-workers, said Jonah Sterling, group creative director for Microsoft solutions partner IdentityMine. “For an exec, an iPad can become a whole conference room,” he illustrated.
Health care is another big sweet spot for iPads. Medical device manufacturer Medtronics, for instance, last fall made a bulk purchase of 4,500 iPads for its execs and sales people. The University of Chicago Medical Center has expanded on an earlier pilot by providing iPads to all of its internal medicine residents.
Many doctors are discovering the iPad to be a convenient way of pulling up medical records and displaying X-rays to patients. With that in mind, Epocrates — maker of a widely used drug interaction database that runs on multiple smartphone platforms — is now stepping into electronic medical records with a Web-based Sofware as a Service (SaaS) system accessible from mobile devices.
When will the iPad be Ready for Primetime?
Additional sorts of apps are also making their way to iPads and other tablets. IdentityMine has built an application toolkit designed for quick conversion of most code from Windows enterprise business applications – including complex custom apps involving database access, for instance – into versions that will run on Windows Phone 7 and on iOS, the OS Apple uses on both the iPad and iPhone. Conversion from Windows to Android will be next, Sterling said.
Yet other observers contend that, in most organizations, enterprise-wide deployments of heavy-duty iPad apps won’t be happening right away. Steve Bedell, a network engineer for Network Knowledge Inc. in Yarmouth, Maine, foresees the release of the iPad 2 as the starting point. Bedell cited the iPad 2’s rumored inclusion of front- and rear-facing cameras for video-conferencing and social networking apps.
To the contrary, Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, suggested that Apple’s tablet won’t really be ready for primetime in enterprises until even further away, in the iPad 3 or iPad 4 timeframe. “The iPad 2 still won’t have enough headroom,” the analyst maintained.
Yet Microsoft, for one, seems plenty worried already. As early as last summer, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer began promising the onslaught of a new breed of Windows 7 “slate” tablets from Microsoft hardware partners. By now, Windows 7 tablets include the HP Slate 500 and upcoming devices from Asus, Lenovo, Fujitsu, and Motion Computing, for example. Also lately, Microsoft has begun talking up the next edition of its OS, Windows 8.
“Microsoft’s announcement at CES that Windows 8 will run on [ARM chips] is a big hint at how Microsoft will attempt to compete with non-Windows devices like iPad,” said Rob Sanfilippo, a research VP at Directions on Microsoft.
“The problem is that the plan doesn’t deliver strongly competitive solutions for about two more years, which gives Apple (and Google) a very large time berth to build on already wildly successful product offerings,” the analyst added.
Samsung is already out the door with the Galaxy Tab, one potential rival running the Google-spearheaded Android OS. Other big device makers, including Droid phone maker Motorola, are expected to follow after the release of the next major version of that OS, Android 3.0 or “Honeycomb,” which Google has touted as being enterprise friendly, including business-focused 10-inch ‘Dell Streak 10’.
At the same time, RIM is prepping its PlayBook tablet running the new BlackBerry Tablet OS for later this year.
Microsoft’s iPad Strategy
Yet the industry-leading iPad, of course, stands out as the biggest concern to Microsoft. Accordingly, Microsoft has reportedly started coaching some of its partners on how to fend off the iPad when talking to tech staffers in customers’ IT departments.
In a recent edition of her ZDNet column, All About Microsoft, Mary Jo Foley included a set of Microsoft-devised slides showing the types of tips that Microsoft is doling out to partners.
In the slides, Microsoft acknowledges that form factor, intuitive user interface (UI), and battery life are a few strengths for the iPad. Yet the Redmond, Washington-based software giant also advises its partners to play up a number of specific attributes of Windows 7 slates.
As Microsoft sees it, advantages of Windows tablets include greater security and manageability, “hardware choice,” better content creation, and easier compatibility with external hardware like printers and installed Windows software servers such as Exchange and SharePoint.
Can the iPad be Beaten?
Can Microsoft’s strategy succeed in denting the iPad? In raising this question to implementer and analysts, there are decidedly mixed opinions.
Nobody interviewed for the story really disputed the iPad’s form factor and UI as advantages for Apple. IdentityMine’s Sterling, however, predicted that Apple’s tablet could lose a lot of its edge on battery life if the iPad 2 ends up including not just built-in cameras, but also a USB port for attaching external gizmos.
Some of the other rumored but still unconfirmed enhancements for the iPad 2 include a dual-core processor, dual-mode GSM/CDMA mobile chipset, SD Card Slot, and high resolution retina display.
Some of the observers I spoke with pointed out that, with the rise of smartphones, users have already gained considerable clout with IT departments around choosing their own devices. Yet people also cited mitigating factors such as corporate culture, regulatory environments , and whether the folks promoting iPad use inside a company are head honchos or just rank-and-file workers.
Security and Manageability
Will Windows tablets offer better security and manageability? “If I have intellectual property that I want to keep out of the hands of competitors, I can control that information in a much more sophisticated manner on Windows,” noted Bob Maclean, director of consulting services at RBA Consulting, another major Microsoft partner.
Yet Michael Cherry, also a research VP at Directions on Microsoft, recalled that when MS-DOS PCs first showed up in corporations, manufacturers of midrange enterprise computers “made all the same arguments that those devices couldn’t be managed.”
Enderle contended that although security is important, it’s important mainly to IT departments. “The problem is that end users [have traditionally seen] Windows tablets as large [devices] that eat up battery life,” he noted.
Compatibility with Software and Other Devices
What about compatibility with existing software and hardware in organizations? “The Windows platform is already engrained into the enterprise,” according to RBA’s Maclean.
For his part, Bedell said that RIM might well raise some of the same arguments about security, manageability, and compatibility that Microsoft is making. RIM already offers BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), a security and management server for its BlackBerry phones.
“Apple definitely has a big lead right now, but new tablets based on Windows, Android, and RIM OS are just emerging. In certain enterprises, [these other tablets] will integrate all the more easily. It’ll be interesting to see what happens,” according to Bedell, who works mainly with smaller companies in fields such as health care, financial services, real estate, and construction.
Content Creation and Hardware ‘Freedom of Choice’
Until more Windows 7 tablets hit the market, the jury still seems to be out on how well hardware “freedom of choice” will work as a selling point.
Sterling mentioned one IdentityMine customer – a large insurance company – which decided to adopt a Windows tablet instead of an iPad for its in-the-field claims takers because the Windows device will be available in a highly rugged, “practically indestructible” form factor.
Generally speaking, “diverse form factors aren’t going to matter that much, because it’s the iPad form factor that people want,” Enderle said.
There’s lots of agreement, though, that Windows offers better content creation capabilities than iPads, at least for the moment. “Content creation is an important differentiator. Windows 7 tablets are full-on PCs,” Enderle affirmed.
Many Windows 7 tablets feature active pen input that can convert pen-drawn notes into typed text, powered by tablet mainstays Wacom or N-trig. The iPad and most Android tablets are limited to on-screen keyboards, though N-trig recently announced Android compatibility.
Indeed, the initial crop of enterprise-oriented iPad pilot tests are oriented mainly to information display and other types of content consumption. iPads also work well for email, texting, and Web apps, Bedell noted.
Yet Bedell conceded that iPads “aren’t really there yet” for content creation, nor for some of the tasks he needs to perform for business customers, such as remote configuration of routers.
In Sterling’s view, the enterprise tablet race will ultimately boil down to a battle between iPads, Windows tablets, and devices based on a yet to be determined third environment, which might turn out to be either Android or BlackBerry.
“The winner will be the one that can gain the hearts of the consumers, while also making the IT department feel included,” he elaborated.
Meanwhile, Microsoft partners are also trying to help Windows tablets catch up to the iPad by building new software apps expressly for the Windows slates. At the National Retail Federation (NRF) conference in New York City in January, for example, IdentityMine demo’d a software solution for retail stores integrating both Windows Phone 7 smartphones and Windows 7 tablets. The phone app is for the store customers, but the tablet app is for the retail sales associates.