iPad, TouchPad, ThinkPad or Windows: The Best Tablet for Business

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The Role of Tablets in the Enterprise

Tablets may one day soon take their place alongside PCs and smartphones as standard-issue IT equipment.

This week, Good Technology released numbers indicating that the iPad was outdistancing Android-based products for the enterprise, but it didn't track the RIM Playbook or HP TouchPad, which are two products that specifically target the enterprise. In addition, the ThinkPad isn't shipping yet and it might be the best shot Android has in getting into the enterprise. One of the ironies for both the ThinkPad group and tablets in general is that IBM is the company backing the iPad into the enterprise, which suggests a really interesting dynamic going on. In short, the tablet is becoming the preferred mobile terminal for business management. Even BMC has entered the ring as its Aeroprise acquisition showcased.


Let's explore that.


Android Impressions


I'm doing a rather massive long-term review of Android tablets and my general conclusions so far are that the NVIDIA Tegra 2-based hardware that virtually all of them are based on and the case designs are very competitive with the iPad. However, the Honeycomb tablets crash far too often and too many of the vendors seem to be trying their hand at software and suck at it. This last became clear when the 3.1 version of Honeycomb started showing up on these tablets addressing the core OS problems but not addressing the problems with the vendor-specific apps.


Ironically, the product that has consistently done the best so far is the Dell Streak 7. This is because the product has been around the longest, is based on Android Froyo, which has the most applications and is the most mature (it is the version of Android for the phone), and Dell does a better job with software. Of the initial set (Samsung, Asus, Acer, etc.) it is really the only vendor in this first wave that puts out enterprise-quality work.


But Lenovo is entering and its ThinkVantage software technologies have set ThinkPads apart for years and it could have an advantage here. The ThinkPad tablet will also be one of the first to have a digitizer and this could be a critical part of having it play in business. A digitizer allows the use of a high-resolution pen for signatures and forms, and it represents one of the waves I think will define the decade. The ThinkPad tablet won't ship until August, which is late in the cycle, but showcases Lenovo's need to ensure that the product is finished and doesn't have the problems the other Honeycomb-based offerings have showcased. In the end, it could be the product that stands out as the big winner out of the Android camp.


But until it arrives, the battle is left to others.


HP TouchPad


Of those others, HP stands out as the vendor that has most closely tried to emulate Apple. It bought Palm, the most Apple-like vendor that could be bought, and brought to market a series of phones and its own tablet - the HP TouchPad. This is the only product I've seen so far based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon platform. Initial reviews indicate that while the product shows potential, and it does often do better than its Android rivals, it was both delayed and rushed. Delayed because of the HP/Palm merger and then rushed when the merger was done. The result is a hardware design (thicker, one camera) that isn't that competitive with the current raft of Android tablets, offers few of the key consumer applications I look for (Netflix, Slacker, Kindle Reader, etc.) and has some roughness around the edges.


Still, as an enterprise product wrapped by HP, it could provide a better alternative for business than most Android tablets (except the Dell line) because of the HP support structure and the fact that HP will ensure the result. What makes the difference in a business solution isn't necessarily the device, but how well wrapped that device is by enterprise services, and, here, HP stands out as the only vendor that has its own solution and it is wrapping that solution appropriately.


The IBM iPad


This week, I attended a presentation from IBM's storage group, which was kind of fun for me because I used to work for that group years ago. IBM announced improvements in its ability to consolidate storage, as well as improvements in ease of use, resiliency, deployment and configuration process, and improvements in automatic and dynamic load balancing. IBM is clearly driving to live up to its tagline of "Storage Reinvented." However, buried in this briefing was that it was using the iPad as its mobile management terminal.


While it may be hard to believe that someone would buy an expensive storage system in order to justify a company-purchased iPad (IBM is actually giving iPads as incentives), I've seen stranger things and the iPad remains, by far, the most popular tablet on the market. Some of the irony here is that the majority of folks I ask about the ThinkPad still think (no pun intended) it is an IBM product and that IBM employees carry ThinkPads themselves. But the ThinkPad tablet isn't shipping, so IBM took the next best step, which was to embrace the tablet that buyers seem to prefer by a significant margin - the iPad.


Wrapping Up: Windows?!?


Like anything else, if you are going to choose a tablet to work as a management terminal, I'd follow the advice of those that build the hardware you are trying to manage. But the interesting thing about the Dell experience is that it showcases what might have happened had Microsoft decided to allow Windows Phone 7 to move to tablets this year. The Dell solution, based on the phone version of Android, was arguably a better experience and Windows Phone 7 has higher customer satisfaction than Android does. That's an interesting path not traveled.


This all also showcases that this year the market is still far from cooked and that if Windows 8 can be competitive on tablets, it could easily move in and displace the market thanks to its stronger business roots. To point: Windows 7 tablets are actually outselling the RIM Playbook. This all suggests that 2012 will be an even more interesting year for tablets in business.


If you are thinking of a tablet yourself, of the 10-inch Android tablets I've tried, the Asus Transformer stands out so far as the best in hardware, but the Netflix support in the Lenovo IdeaPad K would likely trump it if you like movies and don't care about the integrated keyboard.


Now, if you could only get both in the same product.