THE recent launch of the Apple iPad Mini is the very latest announcement from a growing market for ‘mini tablets’, a growing subsection of the tablet industry, itself barely a few years old.

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Bigger than a smartphone but smaller than a traditional tablet these mini tablets have proved hugely popular with consumers and successful for their makers.

Steve Jobs, the Apple visionary that kick started the smart phone and tablet revolution was widely quoted for saying there was no market for a 7” tablet (the iPad is 10”) yet Apple’s iPad mini (7.8” not 7”!) sold 3 million units on its first weekend. It is estimated that 34 million mini tablets will be sold in 2012 from all providers.

This rise in mini tablet sales is part of a much bigger surge in demand for ‘smart devices’ at the expense of computer purchases. Research from Gartner suggests a total of 821 million ‘smart devices’ (smart phones, tablets and mini tablets) will be sold in 2012 with a forecast of 1.2 billion sales in 2013. To put this into context, the sales for ‘traditional’ computers is on the slide with only 348.7 million PCs to be shipped this year.

But does this actually mean a slip in computer use for business? The first generation iPads were wildly successful but were criticised as only being great for media consumption (reading, watching and listening) which couldn’t threaten the trusty computer for actual ‘work’. But later versions of the iPad and rival tablets such as the Galaxy Tab are getting more powerful. Add in the continued access to cloud based computing, the tablet is allowing us to do more, moving it away from a purely consumption based entertainment platform.

Despite owning an iPad, I am still typing this article on a laptop because it is easier for me to research and write than on a tablet. But many of my peers have small keyboards that work with their tablets, making this argument null. The rise in apps like Dropbox for storage and Wolfram Alpha for computations (its very cool, trust me) means I am close to replicating the work I do on the laptop, on a tablet. There is a chance my current laptop is the last one I will buy for day to day working.

But the tablet is not just replacing work on the computer, it is also improving ‘traditional’ paperwork. Insurance companies, surveyors and more are turning to apps that can do more than just form filling. A building surveyor may once have visited a site, filled in some relevant forms, taken pictures and headed back to the office where they would type it up, print out the pictures and file the form. With a dedicated app, that surveying can be done onsite, with a connected tablet filing the details straight into a database. Those photos can be taken with the same tablet and appended to the form ensuring all the data is registered before the surveyor leaves site. No more duplicate form filling back at the office means more productivity.

An app can also do a lot more than manage forms. With the right details the app can communicate via the Internet to help processes claim details or create assessments immediately, based on the data provided to it. Again, the tablet combines data entry with business decisions without the need to head ‘back to base’ - speeding up business processes and decision making.

The tablet also has a weight advantage versus other reading material. American Airlines is set to replace all its onboard flight manuals with tablets saving weight and a whopping $1.2 million annually on fuel costs, not to mention the cost of updating and printing new manuals. With the manuals on a tablet, any revisions can be made and shared in hours not months.

Gartner identified a growing business demand, with 13 million tablets being used for business, rising to 53 million by 2016.

The evolution of a mini tablet could further ignite growth in business take up. A tablet that is [almost] small enough to fit in a jacket or handbag means even greater portability and access.

Businesses seeking to connect with this mini tablet audience are also benefitting. New data from OnSwipe show that mini tablets like the Amazon Kindle Fire and Google’s Nexus 7 are delivering a 20% increase in page views and time spent on site. The use of a mini tablet is making it that much easier [than a smartphone] to read longer content and engage with websites and apps.

Soon the business question may change from “do we need to use tablets?” to “which one should we use?”

Apple lead the way in tablet sales and are catching up with the mini tablets, but they are by no means the only option. Amazon really kick started this evolution with the hugely successful launch of the Kindle Fire, followed by the highly acclaimed Nexus 7 powered by Google.

With the launch of Windows 8, and a rumoured collection of Windows tablets coming in 2013, all three major providers, Google, Apple and Microsoft will be pushing the benefits of a tablet.

: : Jamie Riddell is an expert in digital trends and a director of Suffolk-based website and app developer V4 Technical.

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