Will the new crop of slate tablets be good for healthcare?

I recently read an article in Laptop Magazine about the most anticipated tablets scheduled to hit the market over the next several months. Some things caught my attention.

First, all the tablets listed were slate models and offered a variety of screen sizes. The smallest screen listed was 7 inches, while the largest was listed at 12 inches. Screen size is important to me so I was glad to see that the idea of larger devices wasn’t completely dead. The second thing was the variety of operating systems offered. Windows 7 and Android were prominent, but a couple of the tablet descriptions didn’t include an operating system. Based on the screen shots and a little web surging it appears that some of the devices may use proprietary operating systems. We’ll have to wait and see. And finally, almost all the tablets listed were clearly aimed at the consumer. In fact the only “enterprise” tablet that made the list was the Cisco Cius. The Cius is an interesting device as it will use the Android OS, a smaller 7 inch screen, 802.11n, 3G and 4G, and Bluetooth. I’m sure the company is hoping to leverage its VoIP and data systems against the needs of business users. In my opinion the Cius would provide significant functionality and potential for increased productivity to those businesses that already employ Cisco phone or data services. It makes sense to integrate tablets into a system that already uses the same infrastructure.

The two tablets that were conspicuously absent from the list were the BlackBerry PlayBook and the HP Slate which are both being marketed as enterprise devices. I love the idea of the PlayBook because it offers real-time video conferencing like the Cius and the ability to pair it with a BlackBerry smartphone to access online content. The potential to tether a smartphone to a tablet is quite appealing to me.

So, what does this mean for healthcare? Honestly it means very little. While I’m a big fan of both the slate tablet and the Android OS I’m not sure that either will fit the needs of many practitioners. Availability of applications is growing rapidly for Android devices, but the iPad has firmly entrenched itself among many healthcare providers, especially physicians. And once something becomes entrenched in healthcare it takes a lot to dislodge it. Another issue I see with the new crop of tablets is the screen size. I prefer more screen real estate than many of the devices mentioned above offer. Seven inches seems to be the target for many of the device manufactures on the list, but you would have to give me a compelling reason for going smaller rather than bigger. I have a smartphone when I want extreme portability. I want more from a tablet.

I’m not sure what drives the 7-inch platform, but something must have pushed the manufacturers in that direction. As a pharmacist I’d like to see a 12-inch slate tablet for use on the floor. As healthcare software vendors have yet to optimize their software for touch, that extra screen comes in handy for viewing complex patient records. The only device on the Laptop Magazine list with a 12-inch screen was the ASUS Eee Pad EP121, which brings me to another sticky point, Windows 7. The Windows OS is probably the best operating system for use in healthcare because all current legacy applications for healthcare are built around the Windows environment. However, Windows 7 is not optimized for use on a touchscreen device, especially a small touchscreen. I find this odd as Windows has been hammering on the idea of the tablet as a computing platform for well over a decade. If you spend a little time reading online reviews of the Windows slates that are starting to pop-up, you will find that the reviewers often times have good things to say about the hardware, but are typically critical of the Windows operating system. For a perfect example of what I’m talking about see the GBM InkShow featuring the HP Slate. After talking about the great build of the device and some of the coolness of it, the reviewer touches on the problems with the Windows 7 environment (around the 9-minute mark in the video).

Microsoft is uniquely qualified to improve the tablet experience, but for some inexplicable reason hasn’t decided to do so. As I’ve said before “I think vendors simply try to cram too much functionality into mobile software or try to create an exact replica of the desktop. In my opinion it would be better to take the most frequently used functions, make it brain-dead simple to use and scrap the rest.” Until they do, end-users will continue to look for alternatives such as the iPad, Android OS tablets, the BlackBerry PlayPad and the ever-talked-about-but-yet-to-be-seen mythical HP webOS device.

I’m still waiting for the perfect slate tablet to emerge from the fog. I think Samsung is quickly taking the lead, but we’ll have to wait until 2011 to get a clear picture of where the market is headed. Until then I will stick with a convertible tablet PC running Windows 7. It works for me.