Will Tablets Succeed in the Enterprise?

When Apple reinvented the tablet from a thick, clunky, pen-based device, to an advanced thin touchscreen experience with the launch of the iPad in 2010, some were skeptical. It wasn’t clear where the tablet would fit between a smartphone and a laptop. Still, it sold 4.2 million units in its first full quarter, surprising everyone.

Turns out, tablets found a place between laptops and smartphones. It became the third device people used mostly for personal applications, and brought into work, but not paid for by employers (with the exception around single-function use cases).

Since then, nothing has changed, especially in business. Enterprises still don’t support tablet use on a wide scale, and we have not found that killer enterprise tablet app yet. Today, tablet growth has stalled. Will tablets succeed?

The Numbers

The focus on tablets lately has been around the decline of sales growth and lack of innovation. Companies succeed on growth, and the tablet market has stalled, but not died.

A quick look at Apple’s latest figures reveal a 13% annual decrease in iPad sales. Yet Apple still sold 12.3 million units, earning $5.3 billion.

Jordan Weissmann of Slate.com pointed out that while sales of iPads might be declining, it’s still a massive business, generating more revenue than Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, and Tesla combined. Meanwhile, tech guru Walt Mossberg thinks tablets, “are extremely versatile and productive tools for consumers, schools and businesses, and are better for many tasks than the PC or the smartphone.”

I couldn’t agree more, but the problem is, it has not replaced the laptop or smartphone as a main device, and until that day, tablets will remain a niche device.

Laptop Replacement?

Apple arguably has the best and most popular tablet today, with fast processors, lightweight design, instant on and long battery life. All things laptop users chased after for the past twenty years. But there are a number of reasons why the tablet still hasn’t replaced the laptop, especially in the enterprise:

  • Cost - Laptop costs have come down; meanwhile, Apple charges a premium price for iPads. An iPad Air 2 with just 128GB of memory is $699. Today, 13” laptops with a 750GB hard drive sells for $500 retail, and enterprise discounts can drive that cost even lower.
  • Not subsidized - While many enterprises let their employees use tablets to access enterprise applications; they don’t generally subsidize the cost of tablet hardware or network services. Smartphones wouldn’t be where they are today if carriers didn’t subsidize the hardware and if enterprises didn’t pay for expensive voice and data plans.
  • Input restrictions - Whether by function or habit, for most business applications and uses, a larger keyboard and mouse work best for most users. Tablet keyboards just don’t seem to work as well when writing more than just an email. A mouse is needed for creating presentations. And most of all, applications not specifically designed for the tablet, don’t work well. Any intensive writing or design needs are prohibitive to do on a tablet.
  • No killer enterprise app - Tablets are incredibly versatile for personal use, such as reading, playing games, watching videos. But for the average business user? They use tablets mostly for email and web browsing. The enterprise has not yet found a way to adequately support its core business applications on these devices. This is the biggest reason why tablets aren’t growing and the key to its success in the future.

The Future of Tablets

So, how do tablets succeed? By replacing either the smartphone or the laptop.

The biggest reason why tablet sales aren’t growing in the enterprise is because they don’t support the same applications as well as laptops. Much of this has to do with display sizes and input—tablets can’t replicate the same applications with a 9” display, soft keyboard (which takes up half the screen) and a finger.

One option would be to dock the tablet into a large display, keyboard and mouse—to a workspace wherever you go. Access to native apps or a virtual desktop would give a full laptop/desktop experience—with the tablet simply as a conduit. Detached, it would go back to being a handheld device. This is one option that seems compelling and likely to allow people to keep their laptops at home, or not buy one at all.

Another way to make tablets work better is through input devices. Would the addition of a mouse on an iPad improve sales? Maybe. I’m not sure why Apple blocks users from having a mouse on an iPad. Apple could even come up with some really great way of redesigning the mouse for a tablet.

Another input improvement would be the pen. Today’s tablet touch screens work well for the finger, but don’t have the best tactile feel or design for a pen input. Creating a display that supports both finger and quality pen input would help.

Today, tablets are stuck in between smartphone (phablet) and laptop sales. Though sales declines don’t warrant future success, the death of the tablet is not imminent.

To succeed though, manufacturers need to look at innovative ways of supporting complex applications, input and managing screen real estate. If the tablet market can replace the laptop and the growing thin-client (Chromebook) market, its success is likely set for the future.

Phillip Redman, former Gartner analyst, is an enterprise mobility evangelist at Citrix, responsible for developing and aligning mobile strategy across all product lines. Follow him at @XenMobile, @MobilePhillip.

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Phillip Redman
Vice President of Mobile Solutions & Strategy