Is the phrase 'business tablet' an oxymoron? For the last three years, iPads have been our future. As their sales rose, laptop sales plummeted. But now, it's starting to look like the tablet revolution was really just about replacing home-based leisure laptops with flat-screened games, movie and web devices. Because while many of us now log on to Netflix and sneak a game of Candy Crush on our 10-inch devices, few of us appear to be using the machines as genuine laptop replacements at work.
To look at the raw figures, there is no doubt that tablets are trouncing PCs when it comes to overall sales. In Ireland, tablets overtook laptops and desktop machines (combined) in unit sales early last year: they currently outsell the keyboard machines about two to one. Globally, it's a similar trend with tablets set to overtake PC sales this year for the first time.
But take a deeper look at who's buying tablets, and what they're used for, and a different story starts to emerge. Ask a child what they want for Christmas, a birthday, or as a Communion or Confirmation present. The single biggest item on the menu is a tablet. For many kids, laptops are ancient devices with no discernible rationale.
Now look at what business people are buying and using. It's a MacBook Pro. Or a 12-inch Sony Vaio. Or a Lenovo. What was once flagged as a sector ripe for tablet use appears to have barely budged in its choice of computer tool. In fact, most surveys done in Ireland show that PC penetration among businesses has either stayed steady or even risen in the last three years. By comparison, the fifty-something businessman who walks around with a leather iPad keyboard case under his arm can now be taken to define a light, casual computer user.
Why are businesses bucking the tablet trend? For Irish business users, there are seven main reasons.
1. Typing: Although you can now get decent keyboard accessories and cases for iPads and other tablets, they still fall short of most laptop keyboards. (They often don't feature time-saving keyboard shortcuts, either.) That means that tablet users working on documents or projects take longer to do basic typing tasks.
2. Flexibility and multi-tasking: Need to flick between programs rapidly as you work? Even the most basic laptop will allow you to do this, whereas tablets are slow. Similarly, you can't stick a USB key into an iPad. Functionality like this may be considered old hat (and, in fairness, it is). But it is symptomatic of a fundamental difference between laptops and tablets: laptops are far more flexible once they're actually up and running.
3. Speed of use: One of the biggest single advantages to tablets has been that they switch on and off almost instantly. But the new breed of business laptops come with the same type of memory technology as tablets. In other words, they start up instantly and turn off instantly without the rigmarole of whirring hard drives taking 20 seconds to become operational.
4. Work software: Yes, there are apps for many software applications. But most are stripped down to a bare bones version. And while cloud software is starting to come to the fore, many businesses either don't trust web-only software or have not yet altered their workflow to accommodate it.
5. Size: Laptops used to be 15-inch shoulder-breakers. Business laptops are now 11-inch or 12-inch sleek machines, largely modelled on Apple's MacBook Air. This means that you can now open and use them in an economy-class seat, something that only tablets would previously allow you to do.
6. Battery: Older laptops rarely got you beyond three hours' use on a single charge. But new laptops can get you up to nine (genuine) hours, which is comparable to tablets.
7. Phablets: All of the above reasons focus on the gaps between laptops and tablets. But perhaps the biggest single reason that tablet penetration in business does not match its sales prowess in the home is down to the growth in large smartphones ('phablets'). Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 is a good example. The 5.7-inch phone, which sells well among business people, is very close to being a tablet substitute itself. It is big enough to properly peruse websites or email, fast enough to deal with documents and cloud computing applications and slim enough to fit into a pocket like a normal phone. The more you use it, the less you will feel the need to use a tablet. Today, most high-end work phones are at least five inches in size, with Apple preparing a similarly-sized device for sale later this year.