Fast Company

Work/Life: E-Readers and Tablets Hit the Road

Are e-book readers, or e-readers, a useful tool for business travelers? My answer is yes, and I'll explain why and how.

A lot has been written recently about e-readers, particularly the introduction of the quasi-e-reader, or tablet, the Apple tablet, the world-changing iPad, which launches April 3. The iPad is a touchscreen tablet, a happy hybrid that integrates the features of a laptop with the portability of netbook, and the ease-of-use of a handheld. Imagine the iPhone, but bigger.

CIO Insight recently offered its top reasons for businesses to consider the iPad, while its blogger Tony Kontzer had his doubts. CPA Gene Marks chimed in by citing no discernable ROI for a business to adopt the iPad.

Where tablets are concerned, the iPad's interface is much improved. While it won't offer the optimum e-reader features, Apple doesn't need to sell me on the notion that the iPad will open windows for the business traveler. For example, if you're on the road for weeks at a time, the more tasks you won't be able to put off till you get back to the office. With an iPad you'll actually be able to do more of those tasks. I see an iPad as bringing a part of your offices and a part of your home with you. In fact, in more ways than a laptop it will become your home away from home. This will be especially true for travelers who normally take only a handheld with them.

The reason is the touchscreen. Having used a touchscreen before — the well-received Traveltainment's VisionDesk, which is based on Microsoft's Surface Table, is a good example — I recognize that the benefits are more than just ergonomic. Touching a touchscreen more closely mirrors the way in which people think than punching a keyboard. It's easier to move windows around, to open and close screens, to explore.

Arik Hesseldahl at Bloomberg BusinessWeek sees the lightweight package of broader functionality represented by the iPad and other touchscreen tablets as a threat to netbooks — although not necessarily to traditional laptops. I, on the other hand, think they could be.

Touchscreens stimulate free association, which is valuable when you're in the mood to discover. I find a touchscreen mirrors the process of leafing through a stack of pictures or tourist brochures. It's more intuitive. If you're booking a trip while you're on the road, the experience is different from using a laptop or handheld. How you get to where you're going is usually the last thing you book, and that's where a touchscreen shines. Touchscreening also makes changing an itinerary much easier.

As Mark Walsh pointed out in his MoBlog: Cutting Through the Static at MediaPost's MobileMarketing Daily, people are awakening to the benefits of touchscreens. In fact, Walsh noted, Gartner is projecting the global market for touchscreen devices to double this year. He added that Gartner indicates, if I may quote him, that "as more mid-range phones get touchscreens, mobile users become aware of the benefits the technology offers and growing consumer demand in turn encourages handset makers to introduce more touchscreen devices."

Does it replace your laptop? No. The inherent advantage that touchscreens have over laptops isn't just that they're lighter. The way in which they enable you to work is more organic. Still, the iPad is one touchscreen tablet that will come with virtual keyboard, so it can double as a pseudo-laptop. It will also come with an e-reader, which, to my mind, is one of its key attractions of the iPad and other tablets for the business traveler — especially for travelers who find themselves in overseas locales.

Think about it. You're in a foreign land and you have a yen for a good book, except there isn't much selection of English-language books where you're staying. If for no other reason, IMHO, this is why the e-reader needed to be invented. Even if you were willing to lug a weighty book, you first need to be able to buy it.

For those who wouldn't care to tote a 1,000-plus-page copy of "Gone With the Wind" with them, but who really can't wait to learn what happens to Ashley and Melanie on page 900, the e-reader is a blessing. Just dial up the electronic GWTW that you downloaded before leaving the States and problem solved.

No one can be sure how long many of the current e-reader models will be around — there are some three dozen iterations on the market — but Amazon's Kindle seems to be making major inroads. The biggest problem that e-readers face is limited content. Even at a content-rich outlet like Amazon, lack of content for Kindle is inhibiting sales. As successful as Kindle is, it could be in far more homes and in the hands of far more business travelers but for content. It's a chicken-and-egg thing: more people would use it if more books were available on it and more books would be available on it if more people used it.

For many road warriors content is less of an issue than format. More business travelers would tote an e-reader if only they had been file format support. For example, the iPad won't come equipped with a capacity to display Adobe Acrobat, which is a major issue. You wonder how Apple could introduce the device without it. Because the e-reader I use doesn't have that capacity either, I still print out my presentations, which is just one more thing I'd rather not have to carry. So how well e-readers support the essential business reading function — i.e., the various formats like PDF, Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint, and so on — is the first question most business travelers ask. In the future, I suspect there will be very good PDF-enabled e-readers on the market and I intend to make it a priority in any device purchase.

I think it's also important to avoid being tied to any one site or any format. You want the widest file format capacity without being limited by long-term subscriptions or site access — in other words, by DRM, or digital rights management, which, to some users, seems more like "digital restriction management." So, buyer beware. Check the DRM limitations of any e-reader you consider before you plunk you money down.

As far as cost goes, E-readers are only now coming down in price. As price declines and features improve, I think stores will begin carry a broader selection, which would stimulate competition and drive down prices further. Right now the brands I usually see are Kindle and Sony. Top visibility doesn't translate into top performance, however. Some early adopters point to the Ectaco Jetbook, from Newegg, as one of the top performers — it remains the lowest priced unit with the broadest format support. 

The early Jetbook model was hamstrung by built-in batteries, which have since been supplanted by standard batteries. Any business traveler realizes that removable, replaceable, or rechargeable batteries are very, very important features. Other features to look for include: bright backlighting; easy zoom capability; a variety of fonts; and the ability to display text in both landscape (horizontal) and portrait (vertical) formats.

Apple's iPad enters the market at the high end, with the promise that future models will be less expensive. Will I be on the iPad's early adopters? Possibly. Probably. If the way I feel about the iPad is any indication, there is an undeniable pent-up demand for a touchscreen tablet e-reader that can change the way people work.

Ironically, the iPad is just great except for those who work in companies that do not use Web-based corporate tools. Consequently, any applications that cannot be accessed solely over the Internet, cannot be accessed on the iPad. Many applications at my company run off our network, which uses a VPN login and software loaded on our computer. Hence there is no way my laptop could be replaced by the iPad anytime soon.

Whether the iPad will be as powerful a tool for business travelers as the iPhone has become is too early to tell. The build-up of accessories for the iPad points to — dare I say it? — a paradigm shift. Tablet-style computers and e-readers are just the newest reasons to consider leaving that heavy, and valuable, laptop at home.

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