Over the years it would not be surprising if you had developed a fear of the tablet PC – or perhaps just a fear of the tablet’s typical purchase price. When it was up in the $4,500 range, SMBs were justified in that fear. Many had to find alternatives for mobile workers who checked boxes on clipboards and made the type of notes on forms that had to be input back at the office.

Today, a growing number of companies are seeing the benefits of providing this type of worker with a tablet PC, with its pen-on-screen interface and on-the-road compatibility.

The early leader in this technology, Fujitsu, offers several models, priced for smaller companies who are on the buying bubble. Also, a growing number of PC manufacturers are rolling out convertible tablet PCs. Some of the players include Lenovo, HP and Toshiba.

What are the advantages to tablet PCs, and what kinds of organizations can use them to increase efficiency for their front line, mobile workers? Here are five benefits of tablets that may help you to decide if they’re right for your company:

An out-of-office experience

Jim Clark, president of Markham, ON-based Filbitron, says the most obvious benefit of a tablet PC is the ability to use it away from the office. It’s like having an electronic clipboard or notepad, so people use it primarily for filling in digital forms, he explains. “People who work on their feet, away from a desk, filling in forms on a regular basis; that has kind of been our jingle for the 15 years that we’ve been selling these,” Clark says.

Blunders be gone

Once you get the “wow” factor out of the way – the people who say, ‘Look, I can write my name and it recognizes it!’ – the real payback comes from being able to collect data and enter it accurately, says Clark. Home inspectors are obvious users. Before, they might have walked around a home making notes then transcribing them – or, worse yet, having someone else transcribe them, introducing errors as they went. With tablets, inspectors can now simply tick boxes on an online form, process the information, and, while still in a resident’s home, print out the inspection. “So there’s an example right there of efficiency, quickness, and the ability to do it all yourself,” says Clark. Many sales teams like tablets because they can carry the devices anywhere and know immediately what’s in inventory. Then they can commit to ship dates on the spot.

The price of mobility

Back when tablets cost $4,000 or $5,000, you really needed a situation that promised major ROI to make a purchase work. Tablets have come a long way since then. The acceptance of the technology has increased and competition among vendors is fiercer. Also, there are more applications available, including ones that are specific to certain industries. And tablet prices continue to fall. “We have a lot of people who, when it gets to the $1,500 price point, will deploy them. There’s a price point barrier,” says Clark. However, Fujitsu recently released a tablet in the $1,200 range that may spark some interest from the fence sitters, he says. “It’s new and it’s smaller and doesn’t have all the capabilities, so we’ll have to see whether it will do the job. But that’s kind of the first breaking of that $1,500 barrier.”

Fashionable form factor

Filbitron specializes in tablets for vertical markets, stocking products from three vendors: Fujitsu, Mobile Computing and Xplore Technologies. It generally offers screen sizes of 12.1 inches. “People want a larger screen, we find, than a PDA’s, because of the amount of data they want to see on the screen,” says Clark. Mobile Computing specializes in slate tablets for simple forms (no keyboards). Xplore and Fujitsu offer those types as well as convertibles with a keyboard (you can spin it around and clip it down so the tablet looks like a slate). Most of the traditional PC manufacturers offer convertible models.

Minimal infrastructure needed

To support your tablet PCs, you need a server (shared is fine) and a virtual private network to communicate with that server. You also need to consider security and software. But software companies are stepping up and offering better support, Clark says. Microsoft’s Vista operating system has tablet features inherent in it, for example. “It’s not a special option. It’s just there,” says Clark. “So Microsoft truly has a vision of the tablet being the notebook down the road. Gates thought it would have happened by now. It’s not going to happen for a while, but the tool is there to make it easier to use and easier to integrate, especially when a company’s IT strategy is to run a pure Vista operating system.”

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