Does The Future Of Business Mobile Computing Lie In Hybrid Tablet Devices?

As a legion of hybrid laptop/tablet devices are thrown into the market, riding the wave of the trendy but not-so-business-friendly iPad whilst trying to overcome its limitations in a bid to conquer a place in the corporate world, a few thoughts come to mind as a reflection on the future of business mobile computing.

Tablets in their pure and hybrid forms have been around for several years, but it is only recently that they have reached some sort of success thanks to the right marketing, targeting and perhaps timing. Perhaps they could only be accepted as the natural successor to smartphones and e-readers, and had to hit the gadget-thirsty consumer market before they could be introduced in a corporate environment.

However, tablets like the iPad aren’t specifically built for work. Apart from the security issues that are still to be fully assessed, there are some technical aspects which makes this device unfit for business in its present form. Its touch-screen technology is not ideal for writing long documents and emails, for instance, and the attachable keyboard is an extra expense and an extra item to carry around, making it less comfortable than a normal laptop. Another issue is that the screen does not stand on its own.

To write on it, the device has to be held with one hand, leaving only one hand free to type, or placed horizontally on a surface or one’s lap, an unusual position which makes it harder to compose long texts. A holder can be purchased, but at an extra cost. It must be said that consumers of mobile computing are not eager to carry around extra detachable parts. That’s what mobile computing is all about – compact and lightweight devices to access resources from different places or while travelling.

The latest hybrids launched on the market try to overcome these issues, for instance keeping the laptop’s two-piece, foldable, all-in-one appearance and merging it with the touchscreen concept introduced by tablets. For instance, Dell is launching a 10-inch hybrid Netbook/Tablet device where the screen can be rotated to face upwards before closing the machine, so that whilst the keyboard disappears it remains on the upper surface, appearing exactly like a Tablet.

Toshiba’s Libretto, instead, is an even smaller device (7 inches) that looks like a normal mini-netbook but is composed of two screens with touch-screen technology. One screen can be used for input and the other for displaying information, but they can also be used together as a double-screen, for example to read a newspaper the ‘traditional’ way.

Although the two hybrids both show an effort to meet market requirements for a marketable device – small and fast, easy to carry around, one-piece, foldable, able to stand on its own, touchscreen – this still doesn’t make them ideal and safe for work. It is possible that they become popular among a niche of professionals to whom the design and some of their functionalities may appeal, but it is highly unlikely that they will replace traditional laptops in the IT department or in organisations where IT needs to be efficient and extremely safe.

First of all, the capacity and speed of these devices is limited, and so is the screen size. Furthermore, although the touch-screen technology may probably become the way forward at some point in the future, at the moment it is not advanced enough to make it better than a traditional keyboard.

When typing on a touchscreen there is no tactile response at the fingertips, hence it is necessary to keep glancing at one’s fingers to be sure you are hitting the right keys. Finally, the risk of a ‘cool’ device is that it is an easy target for theft, which can represent a risk to the business from a data protection point of view especially if the device does not allow a sufficient level of security or has some faults to due its newness.

Although the mass of tech-crazy professionals that populate organisations in all sectors are looking more and more for a one-for-all device, it is unlikely that this becomes the mainstream solution. It is more likely that people will have a travel-size device for their free time or when they are on the go, a smartphone for calls and quick email checking and a super-safe and bulky laptop for work.

The problem, here, will be how to access the same resources from the various devices without having to transfer and save all the documents and applications onto all of them. This could be overcome with desktop virtualisation which makes a user’s desktop and resources reachable from any device and anywhere in the world – abroad, home or on a train. Unfortunately this requires a reliable, strong and stable internet connection which at present is still not available everywhere, and especially not outside homes and offices.

As for the far future, portable devices will probably be very different from what we are used to – they will be as thin as a sheet of paper, with touchscreen technology that is more advanced than the one at present, and users will be able to roll them away and carry them in a pocket. The projected keyboard might become popular as well – although it already exists, consumers are still not embracing this new way of inputting information but this might change with time.

In fact, the future of computing is not only determined by technological developments. Adoption in the mainstream culture is essential and it can only happen when consumers are ready to accept variants of what they are used to. It is only through a cultural change that things can really progress onto new forms and it is through the choices and preferences of the new consumer/professional figure that the future of mobile computer will ultimately be determined.

Will Rodbard is a senior consultant for Plan-Net, where he specialises in virtualisation technologies for server, client and storage. Will has been working in IT for over 10 years, 8 of which were spent working on large scale desktop and server deployment projects for both the public and private sector.