Value of tablet computers in mobile UC strategy remains uncertain

Some unified communications professionals are skeptical about how tablet computers fit into an enterprise's mobile UC strategy.

There is no shortage of attention around the revival of touch-screen tablet computers as potential enterprise tools

-- Apple's iPad and Cisco Systems' upcoming Cius, in particular -- but some unified communications professionals are skeptical about their role in an enterprise's mobile UC and collaboration strategy.

Apple has largely targeted the iPad to the consumer market, but some enterprises have found business uses for Apple's $500-and-up, 9.7-inch tablet computer. Conversely, Cisco is positioning the Cius as the foundation of a mobile UC strategy -- with CEO John Chambers calling it a "collaborative tablet for business" at Cisco Live 2010 -- that can combine collaboration, video and mobility on a seven-inch screen.

Although UC pros said tablet computers have potential, they remain unconvinced that the Cius or the iPad as they are today will gain widespread adoption as mobile UC platforms.

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"I think it's too cumbersome as a communications device. If you're going to use it as a phone, it's too big to stuff in your pocket," said Dan Hidlebaugh, network and IT services manager at Hertford Regional College in England. "[And] generally, if I've got to have a video conference with somebody, I want to do it in the quiet of my office. If I happen to be away and out of town, I'll do it on my laptop."

Hidlebaugh's college has already spent thousands of pounds on Cisco's high-end, color touch-screen 7970 series IP phones, which he has integrated with Cisco's Unified Video Advantage software for desktop video conferencing.

With those systems in place, the Cius seems like a wasted investment, he said. Mobile video conferencing also held little appeal for him. The college is considering a purchase of some iPads later this year, but for its media studies programs -- not as part of a broader mobile UC and collaboration strategy.

"I can't see them replacing desktop PCs," Hidlebaugh said.

Jordan McClead, a mobile technology strategist at a university in the Northeastern United States, sees value in using tablet computers but is unimpressed by today's offerings and remains unsure of their role in a mobile UC strategy.

"Tablets, slates or whatever we're calling them this fiscal quarter are a very worthwhile form factor that will get prompt and widespread adoption once there are more competitors in the field," McClead said. "[But] whether this will fit into existing UC strategies or, more likely, require all new ones remains to be seen."

Both the iPad and the Cius boast high-definition video conferencing capabilities, with Cisco's tablet computer offering it as a telepresence experience at 720p and 30 frames per second. But users questioned the value of mobile telepresence, which is meant to be an immersive, large-as-life experience.

I can't see them replacing desktop PCs.
Dan Hidlebaugh
Network and IT Services ManagerHertford Regional College

"While my stance is that this is a valuable niche to play in, I generally think that people who want to take the step to enable true telepresence are going to want to take the additional step to be able to actually see who they're talking with," McClead said. "A seven-inch screen doesn't do that very well, particularly for those with 'mature' vision. Also, how awkward is it if you need to dismiss a notification from another app while you're conducting a [video] chat?"

Cisco emphasizes Cius' role in mobile UC strategy

During Chambers' keynote at Cisco Live earlier this month, Cisco's chief demonstration officer, Jim Grubb, joined him on stage to demonstrate Cius' potential as a mobile UC and collaboration device by showing how it could be used in a classroom environment.

Instead of a teacher looking at an attendance sheet with names, thumbnail images of the students pop up on the screen. Touching one student's photo brings up a profile and recent test scores. Touching a graphic on the screen, a WebEx video conference with the student and her parents pops up and allows them to go over some of the student's recent work.

Built on the Android platform, the Cius can interoperate with Cisco's UC lineup in addition to any standards-based, Android-compatible application -- including other video conferencing vendor systems, Chambers said. The iPad is limited to what's available in Apple's App Store, but some large IT vendors such as SAP AG have developed iPad apps for customers.

"All of a sudden you realize these are not separate products like in the consumer world," Chambers told the audience. "They're designed and architected to fit together."

Tom Puorro, director of product management for Cisco's IP communications unit, said the Cius is not meant to replace legacy UC investments. Although it runs any UC application that a laptop or desktop computer can, he said the Cius' value is in its cost savings, coming preloaded with Cisco's major UC apps on a single device. Cisco has not released a price for the Cius, but Puorro said it will be "under $1,000."

"It may not be for everybody. If you've got people that are working in manufacturing facilities and all they need is a phone, this device probably isn't for them," Puorro said. "We're not advocating [enterprises] should go and rip out their existing telephony or PC base. This just provides a new way to potentially save money and simplify communications."

Jon Arnold, principal of J Arnold & Associates, a Toronto-based telecom consulting firm, said it remains unclear how much mobility tablet computers truly offer.

"It's not really meant to be something you walk around with in your pocket. It's too big for that," he said. "I think as a mobile device, it's primarily meant for in-office use -- from your desk to a conference room, taking notes as you go."

Adoption is likely to be tied to the needs of a specific vertical market or user groups, such as home healthcare and film production, or marketing and sales professionals, Arnold said.

"It's only going to get adopted if it's additive -- if it does things others don't do," he said. "These are all things we already have gadgets to do today, but they [can be done in] a much more collaborative experience."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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