Bruce Smith is feeling some tablet pressure. As director of computing services for Cummins Inc., Smith helps the company's 40,000 employees get the right computers for their jobs.
For a majority of those employees, it's a desktop PC. For mobile professionals, it's a laptop. Select employees, such as engineers, get both a laptop and a workstation capable of high-capacity computing.
Now there's a new possibility on the horizon. Smith says lately he's been getting more and more requests from workers throughout the organization, from executives to HR, to deviate from the standard selection and bring tablets into the mix at the Columbus, Ind.-based company, which designs, manufactures, distributes and services engines and related technologies.
So far he has said no.
"We don't yet deliver or support any kind of tablet," Smith says, explaining that he can't justify supplying workers with tablets instead of laptops because, in his opinion, they don't deliver any more value or efficiency than laptops.
That's one win for the laptop. But will it be a short-term victory?
Already tablets are taking over many of the mobile computing duties in the consumer market. Now, IT leaders say they're seeing those same consumers come to work expecting to use them in the office.
But as tech managers examine whether tablets can really do the job that laptops have been doing successfully for many years, most are finding that tablets aren't quite capable, says Ali Tehrani, director of engineering at Presidio Networked Solutions, part of consulting firm Presidio Inc. in Greenbelt, Md.
"They think that these tablet devices can replace a desktop or a laptop in a work environment, but the reality is that they can't," Tehrani says. Companies still favor laptops as the mobile computing device of choice and deploy tablets for limited tasks or for very specific job functions. "In the business environment today, laptops aren't going to go anywhere."
That's the current state of affairs at Cummins. "We need to make sure we have a good, solid business case before we start providing tablets. It has to be more than the cool factor," says Smith. "You have to ask, 'Why is it a business enabler?' Those are the questions we throw back at the business when they ask if we're going to provide them."
Smith says the laptop's design, with its full-size keyboard and screen, continues to provide the best functionality for those who create and produce information.
Sales figures show Smith's continued support of the laptop is shared by others. According to research firm Gartner Inc., there were more than 204 million laptops shipped worldwide in 2010, compared with 17.6 million tablets sold to end users. Sales in both categories are expected to rise in 2011 and 2012, with laptops projected to continue dominating. Gartner estimates nearly 233 million laptops will ship in 2011, while nearly 70 million tablets will be bought by consumers and businesses. In 2012, 276 million laptops are expected to ship vs. sales of 108.2 million tablets.
Where Tablets Fall Short
Tony Young, CIO at Informatica Corp. in Redwood City, Calif., which specializes in data integration, says about 90% of the computers used by the company's 2,200 employees are laptops. The remaining 10% are high-end desktops used by engineers who need maximum computing power.
Young says he expects those figures to stay that way for the foreseeable future, because laptops offer the functionality and power required by employees, particularly the sales staff. "We sell enterprise software, and you can't demo it on an iPad," he says.
Some of his employees bring their own tablets to work, using them to view presentations or check email, but Young says tablets just don't have enough business applications behind them to justify deploying them in place of laptops.
Employees whose jobs require basic email, word processing and simple tasks like approving expense reports could probably get away with using just a tablet, Young says, "but when it comes to more intensive computing needs -- complex spreadsheets, computational needs, and high-end presentations and graphics processing -- tablets fall short."
When employees request a tablet, Young asks whether it will help them do a better job or make more sales. "They answer no. There's not an ROI. A tablet doesn't move that needle," he says.
Beyond ROI, Tehrani says, companies are still struggling with how best to secure tablets and the corporate data on them, as they don't come with enterprise-level support and security applications (with the notable exception of BlackBerry and its BlackBerry Enterprise Server software).
Even when companies develop their own security and support around tablets, many find that workers still require laptops for their full-size screens, physical keyboards and higher computing functionality, Tehrani says.
That leaves companies facing the choice of either buying yet another computing device for employees or saying no altogether. "Our clients don't see [tablets] as replacing laptops and desktops. They see them as augmenting them, just like the BlackBerry doesn't replace your laptop," he says.
So far, no one has put a lot of R&D dollars into building enterprise applications for tablet devices, which limits how many business tasks could switch from laptops to tablets, says David Daoud, director of research for personal computing, PC tracker and green IT at IDC.
"This is pretty much the beginning of the beginning," Daoud says. "We haven't seen major announcements or deployments yet, because almost all of the tablet industry in general has been focused on the consumer and 'prosumer' market -- the small business or executive. But there's been clearly a lot of demand in the enterprise space."
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