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Tablets Get Down to Business

Apple's iPad and a host of upcoming competitors are finding an eager audience in the corporate world.

Our suggestion a mere six months ago that businesses might find some productive uses for the iPad, Apple’s much-hyped tablet computer, already looks like a decided understatement.

Although seemingly designed to appeal mostly to consumers, and less than perfectly compatible with most corporate computer networks, the device has already caught on with businesses. In one recent survey, 26% of mobile enterprise workers said they expected to buy an iPad in the next six months, and some analysts are forecasting sales of up to 30 million iPads in 2011. That they will increasingly be used for work is beyond question.

Also beyond question is that Apple, in its early position as leader, is about to get serious competition. Samsung, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard have all announced products that will vie with the iPad, and three other vendors — Blackberry, Cisco, and Avaya — next year will roll out tablets that appear to directly target the corporate market with features like videoconferencing. Apple is widely expected to also include that capability in its second iPad version, so companies won’t be starved for choice.

Regardless of the vendor, tablet computers offer business users many advantages over even the lightest conventional netbooks. Presentations and sales calls are much more easily done when all eyes can be directed to a simple flat surface that offers touch-screen interactivity. “The future is here,” says Forrester analyst Ted Schadler. “It’s just not widely deployed yet.”

In fact, to futurist and Technotrends author Daniel Burrus, the new generation of tablets represents nothing less than a hardware revolution for companies and their workers. Much as mainframes gave way to desktops, which in turn bowed to laptops, mobile devices are fast evolving into the primary means of accessing corporate computing, Burrus asserts. “The analysts who said the iPad was an entertainment device didn’t get it,” he says. “The iPad is a huge, huge business device.”

But this revolution may be in the eye of the beholder. Another take is that the new tablets are merely part of a continuum of mobile devices that fill every conceivable niche and keep people more connected as conveniently as possible.

Either way, companies will face a challenge in evaluating the constant stream of new products, choosing which ones to buy and support, and safeguarding company and customer data. “What will companies do, as every device comes with its own operating system, security model, and application development environment?” says Schadler. “It’s going to be chaotic for a while.”

David McCann is senior editor for technology at CFO.

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