Will Blades and Jackets Make Tablets Business-Friendly?

HP ElitePad tablet with jacketWith the introduction of the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 earlier this week, Microsoft COrp. has introduced the concept of “blades,” a new class of plug-in peripherals for its tablets. Many of the initial accessories in this category are basic or consumer extensions, adding to its line of keyed or keyless keyboards and introducing the “Remix Cover” for DJs to ply their craft on the tablets.

Others — for example, a docking station for the Surface Pro — carry more business connotations. The addition of a keyboard cover with a built-in battery will likely make many those using Surface, particularly the more power-hungry Pro version, cheer. But that doesn’t stop ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley from dreaming up more business-centric “blades” for Microsoft’s flagship Windows device, and comments on her piece suggest a variety of extensions to Surface tablets that would make them more appealing with business users.

But can these blade extensions make the tablet a more integral part of business solutions, not just a hip tech toy that stars in mobility and status appeal, but lacks the ability to differentiate itself in a business environment?

We’re already seen the power of tablet expandability through purpose-made accessories. Since its launch of its ElitePad Windows 8-based tablet, Hewlett-Packard Co. has made a variety of “jackets” to extend the product’s capabilities. A lot of the early jackets are the no-brainer connections: HP’s Productivity jacket turns the ElitePad into a convertible notebook, adding a keyboard and some additional ports; the Expansion jacket adds ports and support for external batteries; and a docking station uses the same connection point to put the tablet to work in a desktop environment.

The next-generation jackets for tablets are entering territory with interesting options for VARs. Earlier this year, HP introduced a Mobile POS Solution for ElitePad that uses the jacket to turn the tablet into an in-store or on-the-road point-of-sale device — integrating into retail and other transactional workflows. And the company is also showing off a security jacket with support for smartcards and an on-board fingerprint reader, which could allow the device to be used in more sensitive environments. HP has even hinted it will work closely with customers — and presumably solution providers — on jackets and to solve more particular business challenges.

None of this is new territory for tablets. The ability to add a keyboard or additional ports, or to connect a tablet to a desktop monitor, keyboard and mouse has been around for some time, mostly from third parties and kludgy connections. Specialty SKUs from specialty vendors have been long been available for POS-ready tablets and those with greater baked-in security.

But HP’s Jackets and Microsoft’s Blades allow channel partners to present an option that is elegant, is designed to work together and solves real business challenges. Design is important: A solution that gains functionality at the expense of core tablet expectations will be more a hindrance than an enabler — one reason vendor designs may be preferable to third-party solutions.

Such extensions entrench the tablet as part of the broader solution, whether the actual tablet hardware is purchased as part of the solution sale or from the customer’s site as a BYOD-style employee purchase. It may allow solution providers to manage out-of-control mobile adoption by the employees of their business customers, making those devices a useful and meaningful part of specific business opportunities.

And if, when a long day of ringing up credit card transactions in the store is done, a table sheds its second skin and is a great device for surfing the Web or playing a little Angry Birds, all the better. All work and no play makes tablets dull devices.