Are you debating whether tablet computers could be useful in your business? Read today’s guest post by Staples’ Scott Rankin to help you decide.

Figuring out whether tablets make sense for your business is anything but easy.  Just because your employees (or you) are clamoring for them doesn’t mean there is a business case for them.  When should you stick with a laptop (or even a desktop) and when is a tablet the better choice?

We at Staples have worked with literally hundreds of small businesses who have asked this very question, and have discovered five questions businesses need to ask themselves to determine if moving to tablets makes sense.  If you answer yes to any of the following questions, consider tablets as a business solution for your needs.

1. Does a significant percentage of our business operation take place outside of a traditional office environment?

While most companies conduct the majority of their business in a fairly traditional office setting, most of us conduct at least some business in less than optimal working environments.  We work at home, we work at the kids’ baseball games, we work in the car. Beyond road warriors, there are many industries and companies who conduct business day-to-day with nary a cubicle in sight.  Construction workers, warehousing operations and others conduct business out of the office every day and increasingly, technology plays a role in their work.

2. Do our “mobile” business operations benefit from access to computing devices?

While the benefit of access to computing devices for road warriors may be obvious, portable computing power is becoming critical to many traditionally non-technical industries and workers as well.  Modern ERP systems have made warehouses automated environments with workers attached to various data entry and review devices.  Having technology that allows workers to enter inventory information directly into databases reduces the chance for human error and enables closer to real-time insight into your current situation.

3. Can our mobile business operations be served as well (or better) by a mobile device with a smaller form factor than a laptop?

Customers often mention to us that tablets are less intrusive in business conversations.  Laptops, with their vertical screens, create a potential obstruction between colleagues sitting opposite each other.  Tablets can lie flat on a table and only be lifted up as necessary to share information or offer a demonstration.

4. Will tablet computing have a positive impact on one of our business functions?

While computing has changed almost every business function over the decades, there are some functions that continue to evolve along with the technology that supports them.  Laptops freed salespeople from being disconnected on the road and placed an exceptional wealth of data at their fingertips when speaking with clients and prospects.  Laptops and high-definition monitors have enabled marketing teams to create interactive displays at tradeshows and customer gatherings.

Now, the ultra-portability of tablets trumps the need for greater computing power for some functions.  No longer do you need to wait for a laptop to boot up.  Have a last-minute question before stepping into a meeting?  Consult your tablet.  On the golf course and need to show a prospect some figures?  You’re probably not lugging a laptop, but a tablet can fit right into your bag.  At a trade show and wish you could leave the booth to network but don’t want to be disconnected?  Take your tablet along.

5. How much mobile computing power, connectivity and data entry are necessary?

Tablets are not a panacea.  What you gain in portability, you give up in power to some extent.  Tablets are still not as powerful as laptops for multitasking and hard-core number crunching.

When it comes to connectivity, you have to decide if you need access continuously and therefore need a 3G tablet or only at Wi-Fi hotspots.  Your choice of tablets will depend on answering that question and you will be locked into that decision after the purchase.  With laptops, you have more flexibility since you can always plug a 3G card into a laptop’s USB port.  Additionally, many of today’s smartphones can serve as a 3G hot spot, thereby eliminating the need to sign up for multiple data contracts.

Finally, it is hard to beat a standard physical keyboard if you are performing significant amount of manual data entry.  Yes, tablets can be connected to keyboards, but that kind of defeats their purpose.

The Future

Each new tablet comes with its own strengths and weaknesses and tablet capabilities are evolving at a rapid pace.  Once you have determined that tablets are right for your business, the next question is which tablet is right for your business.  That’s a topic for another article.

Scott M. Rankin is Senior Vice President, Merchandising Office Technology for Staples Inc., where he is responsible for technology products and consumables.  His team supports and extends Staples commitment to make it easy for small businesses through tech products and services that best meet the customer’s needs. Learn more in stores or at the Staples Tablet Research Center.