Resellers are revving up their tablet strategies following predictions that sales of the touchy-feely form factor will double again in 2012.
According to recent figures from Gartner, unit shipments of media tablets are expected to rise from 60 million to 119 million this year before hitting 369 million in 2016. To put it in perspective, that is more than the 353 million PCs that were shipped last year.
Until now, it has been a market from which the business-to-business channel has been largely locked out. Enterprise rollouts currently account for just 10 to 15 per cent of sales.
And the market's 800-pound gorilla, Apple - which accounted for two out of every three units shipped in 2011 - is hardly known for its channel-friendly credentials. The traditional PC vendors that serve the channel, including Dell, HP, Acer and Asus, have failed to make an impression.
However, that could change rapidly. Gartner forecasts that sales to enterprises will rise to 35 per cent of shipments by 2016, with tablets set to become the norm for highly mobile workers. And although Apple's iOS platform will still lead the way in four years' time, Android-based devices - which have so far struggled to compete on price and differentiate enough on either the hardware or ecosystem - and Microsoft's Windows 8 platform will make strong headway over the forecast period.
Down the hatch
Charles Barratt, solutions development manager at Equanet, said most of his customer conversations are currently being led by tablets, with opportunities ranging up to 15,000 units. However, the sale of the device is just the start, he added.
"Many people think of it as just a device they bring into the office and away you go," he said. "For us as the reseller, it does not just equate to the device, but to wireless and cloud infrastructure as well."
It can also lead to a wider engagement around applications, Barratt added.
"Initially, they look at consumer-based apps such as Dropbox. But once they access that internally, it does not meet with their security policies and so we are seeing an increase in corporate versions such as Citrix ShareFile and VMware Project Octopus."
John Thornhill, chief executive of BT's mid-market IT services arm (pictured), emphasised that his firm's strategy was about "taking the customer on a managed journey through the changes in the device landscape" rather than shifting tin.
"Yes, there will be a proliferation in devices," he said. "But the key thing for us is what behaviour changes this will drive in the client's computing needs and what apps they will run on them that will be genuinely disruptive and of use to them.
"For instance, what happens if an app comes forward that allows you to run Windows on an iPad or iOS on Android devices? We are not running headlong into anything."
Sam Routledge, solutions director at Softcat, said his firm is seeing a mix of bring-your-own-device (BYOD) and IT-deployed tablet projects.
"A lot of organisations are preparing for BYOD so they have the technology to deliver services to whatever devices their employees have. Some organisations are deploying them themselves where they need a device from which they can quickly access information. Laptops take time to boot and tablets are also easier to keep clean."
Healthcare and retail - where the tablet can be used for a more collaborative selling experience - are sweet spots, Routledge said. Although still in the proof-of-concept stage, Softcat's largest tablet project to date is a healthcare deal worth 2,000 to 4,000 units, he added.
Don't bring your own
Craig Parker, head of product marketing at Fujitsu, questioned how long BYOD would predominate in the enterprise space as service management desks increasingly feel the strain. The devices will instead be predominantly supplied by the enterprise, he predicted.
"[With BYOD] you have four devices to deal with where before you had one or two," he said. "The service management desk now has to cope with four times as many potential incidents. This is even with smart software for device management and the investment in back-end infrastructure, security and better policy management."
Fujitsu will bring out a Windows 8 slate later this year that it claims will have all the security considerations of a PC. "It gives end users flexibility but in the context of an enterprise-ready device," said Parker. "And that is where we believe the market is slowly evolving."
Thornhill said BYOD is not a huge driver even now.
"In the enterprise, we are not seeing people mixing and matching in their estates or driving hard on the BYOD agenda, but they are talking about tablets," he said.
But Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at analyst Gartner (pictured), warned that enterprises looking to take control of tablet usage must be cognisant of the short sales cycles involved to avoid staff circumventing their policies.
"We think first-generation devices have an average life of 12 to 18 months," she said.
"About 40 to 50 per cent of second-generation devices will be replaced within 24 months so from an enterprise perspective you are looking at a closer relationship between tablets and smartphones than tablets and PCs."
Windows 8 set to take on Apple and Android
A third major platform will enter the tablet space later this year with the launch of Microsoft's hotly anticipated Windows 8.
But despite its snazzy Metro user interface and support for HTML 5 applications, W8 could be a slow burner, warned Gavin Byrne, principal analyst at CCS Insight.
"We are not that optimistic at the prospect of W8 [tablets] in the
mid-to-large-enterprise space in 2012-13 due to the length of time it takes to adopt new platforms," Byrne said.
"At least initially, we believe W8 will have the most success in the ultrabook category.
"Consumers need a reason not to buy Apple. In the consumer space, unless Microsoft and its partners can work together to develop good hardware combinations with W8 software that takes advantage of Metro and its HTML 5 focus - at a price point that will attract consumers - then it will face a challenging time."
According to Gartner, Microsoft-based tablets will mount a serious challenge to iOS in the mid to long term and will account for 12 per cent of the market by 2016. But shipments will reach just 4.9 million this year.
"IT departments will see Windows 8 as the opportunity to deploy tablets on an OS that is familiar to them and with devices offered by many enterprise-class suppliers," said Gartner's Carolina Milanesi. "This means that we see Windows 8 as a strong IT-supplied offering more than an OS with a strong consumer appeal."
Andy Eccles, chief technology officer at corporate reseller Kelway, is among those with high hopes for W8 tablets.
"With the arrival of W8 and Windows RT, we expect the Microsoft platforms to become most important and prevalent," he said. "The past year has proved that end-user computing solutions are only complete where tablet devices are considered and included as a component of the management model."
Equanet's Barratt also expected W8 to make a splash. "Native flash is impossible to run on the iPad whereas W8 has it built in - these are capabilities end users expect and are familiar with. Most of our engagements have been led with Apple, with Android as the fallback. Provided Microsoft listens to our and consumer feedback, Windows 8 will be one to watch," he said.
Paul Barlow, managing director of Servium agreed that some clients are holding off bigger deployments until later in the year when they know what W8 looks like.
At least initially, however, most W8 tablet deployments will come either in the SOHO sector or as limited bring-your-own-device projects within large corporates, according to Byrne
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