Though the current penetration rate might seem low, AMI senior associate Michael McDonald pointed out that it has been achieved in just about one year. And tablet usage inside SMBs -- which AMI defined as firms with between one and 1,000 workers -- is poised for exponential growth: McDonald projected tablet adoption among smaller businesses will hit somewhere between 30% and 35% by 2015. McDonald also noted that competition for the SMB market is currently a one-horse race.
"The iPad, to date, is the dominant tablet in the SMB space," McDonald said in an interview. "A lot of the tablets that have come out from other manufacturers have been smaller in size, which is really not meeting the needs of the SMB."
McDonald, who led AMI's recent tablet research, doesn't see the devices as a near-term threat to desktops or laptops in the workplace. "It's absolutely a complementary device," he said. "I would compare it more closely to a smartphone." McDonald said that, at current prices, it's unlikely that tablets will be widely distributed within SMBs, but rather to select employees such as senior executives, salespeople, and mobile workers.
AMI, a research and consulting firm, surveyed approximately 7,800 SMBs worldwide. The United States has driven much of the early adoption, followed by western Europe. The two regions account for roughly 70% of SMB tablet use today, though McDonald expects that to change as devices become more readily available -- and less expensive -- in emerging markets. AMI found uneven tablet penetration among different industries, with healthcare, professional services, hospitality, and media showing the strongest early adoption.
According to McDonald, AMI stressed to respondents that tablets must be used for business to be counted -- rather than an employee simply bringing their personal iPad into the office. But he noted that, particularly among the smallest of businesses -- up to 10 employees -- that boundary gets blurry.
"[Small businesses] do tend to act more like a consumer in terms of their IT purchasing behaviors," McDonald said. "We make it very clear that this is for work purposes, but I would say that the line could be clouded in some people's judgment."
AMI predicted that global tablet prices will drop as much as 50% by 2013. McDonald said an increasing number of Android-based tablets will continue to add supply to the global marketplace. "There are a lot of them out there, and a lot of them aren't very good," McDonald said. "The thing about it is, though: They come in at a cheap price and they dilute the market somewhat."
Eventually, McDonald sees lower-cost options putting downward pressure on top-shelf devices, such as the iPad, BlackBerry PlayBook, or Motorola Xoom. Stiffer competition among the big players is also likely to benefit SMB buyers. McDonald pointed to the HP TouchPad, due out later this year, as an example. "HP is going to have to make a push in the price point, due to the fact that their app store is going to be smaller than what can be offered from Apple or Android," McDonald said.
AMI's study found an interesting connection between early tablet adoption and cloud software usage: SMBs that deployed tablets were 20% more likely to use hosted software applications. The use of cloud-based document collaboration software more than doubled inside small companies that have also deployed tablets, while the use of hosted productivity suites was about 50% higher among tablet adopters.
"This is more about mobility and SMBs understanding that, coming out of the recession, people aren't just going to come to you," McDonald said, adding that SMB mobility is growing worldwide. "Now you have to go out and find people, you have to do a little more work, you have to get out there.
McDonald said the strong link between tablet usage and cloud collaboration and productivity apps simply underscores the increasing mobility of smaller firms. "You're on the go, what type of information do you need? You're going to want access to your files, you're going to want to share work with the office," McDonald said. "These SMBs are trying to make the most of what they have as they grow."
Mobility might be working for them. AMI found roughly 40% higher revenue growth during the past 12 months among mobile SMBs -- those with one or more employees that work remotely at least four days a week -- compared with companies bound to the physical office.