Android tablets may be the new Zune, but don’t count out BlackBerry

By: Neil Versel | Mar 16, 2011        

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Neil VerselThe biggest news this week in mobile healthcare might have nothing at all do with healthcare—at least not directly. Microsoft apparently giving up on the Zune music player, admitting what everyone else has known for years, that Apple’s iPod reigns supreme in the realm of digital music.

Why is this relevant to healthcare? You may have heard some news recently about the introduction of another Apple product called the iPad 2. It’s lighter, thinner, faster and has longer battery life than its predecessor, and it boasts front and back cameras to enable live video chats — important for things like telemedicine.

The praise for the hot-selling second generation tablet has been nothing short of breathless, including within healthcare. “A faster, smarter iPad 2 helps not only the clinicians who use the product in their work environment, but it also breathes life into a growing number of health applications being developed by vendors looking to organize, store, and share medical data. In fact, vendors are quick to note that their products are iPad ready — an added selling point for their own health related products,” raved InformationWeek.

Clinicians apparently are riding this iPad wave.

Aptilon, a Montreal-based company that helps pharmaceutical and medical device makers market online to physicians, reports that 79 percent of U.S. healthcare professionals named the iPad as their tablet of choice. That’s far ahead of the 12 percent of those surveyed by Aptilon who would choose a Windows tablet and the 9 percent who would go with a Google Android-powered device.

Chilmark Research has estimated that 22 percent of U.S. physicians had iPads at the end of 2010—months before the iPad 2 hit stores.

Others apparently are picking up the same vibe. “Doctors in particular love the iPad. Anecdotal evidence abounds. The folks at my local Apple Store tell me that around one fifth of the customers looking to buy an iPad are physicians. I see iPads frequently at my hospital. A friend in my hospital’s IT department takes calls every day from doctors saying, ‘I just bought this iPad now please make it work with Cerner!’,” ICU nurse, Apple iOS app developer and blogger Jared Sinclair wrote last week.

“Apple’s competitors simply can’t match the iPad’s price without sacrificing crucial features like battery life, screen size, or build quality. No one has come close to matching the $499 iPad’s specs without costing several hundred dollars more, and that was before the iPad 2 was announced. If anything, the market dominance of the iPad will clearly increase in 2011,” Sinclair added.

After being asked about iPad competitors, Gartner technology analyst Michael Gartenberg tweeted on Monday, “Tablets are the new Zune. Watch.”

I haven’t personally seen the iPad 2 yet, but a few things trouble me. For one, as with the original iPad, the iPhone and the iPad Touch, you can’t run multiple apps simultaneously on the new product. Nor can you pop in a memory card to expand storage. Apple devices also don’t support Flash animations, so lots of Internet videos are inaccessible.

Android, on the other hand, does allow multiple apps to run at the same time, and it seems to be more flexible.

Last fall at the mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C., I heard a couple of rave reviews for the Samsung Galaxy Tab, an Android device with about half the screen real estate as the first-generation iPad — and thus small enough to fit into the pocket of a doctor’s lab coat. The version offered by Sprint even has a slot for a SIM card so you theoretically could use it like an overgrown smartphone.

A newer Android tablet, the Motorola Xoom, takes SD memory cards and has USB and HDMI outputs.

Android smartphones are hot right now as an iPhone competitor. Perhaps it’s a market reaction to the longstanding exclusivity AT&T had in the U.S. until Verizon Wireless started carrying the iPhone a month and a half ago. Yet, for whatever reason, Android hasn’t quite taken off in the tablet market.

Chilmark Principal John Moore, an admitted Apple fan, credited the iPad’s dominance to the iTunes App Store. Apple’s tight control over which apps get listed on iTunes, according to Moore, helps protect against malware and viruses. “There have been numerous reported cases of malware Apps in the Android Market that most often are not removed until after thousands of users have had their personal information compromised. The latest occurred a little over a week ago when Google removed 21 malware Apps from the marketplace and then proceeded to remove about 30 more,” he wrote last week.

So is Android the next Zune? Maybe. But that doesn’t mean the iPad won’t be challenged.

I have a strange feeling the forthcoming BlackBerry PlayBook — reportedly to be released April 17 —could be the last, best hope for a true iPad competitor in healthcare. Why? Because BlackBerry still pervades the enterprise.

CIOs love the security of BlackBerry smartphones even if users prefer iPhone and Android touch screens, and few industries have the strict security requirements of healthcare. And make no mistake, the PlayBook is a touch screen.

The Achilles’ heel for Research In Motion right now is not the fact that it was late to the smartphone touch-screen party with BlackBerry, but that its app offerings are slim across the board. But health IT vendors are tripping over themselves right now trying to develop mobile offerings for their customers. The traditional BlackBerry smartphone with its physical keyboard has a tiny screen compared to the iPhone and all the Android and Windows touch screens, but that won’t be an issue with a tablet.

Healthcare software developers should ignore the PlayBook at their own peril.

  • Connectologist

    Every manufacturer dreams of a time when potential customers are clamoring for their product. Sort of like being at Apple these days and hearing the constant stream of desires for an iPad in health care.

    But there’s much more to succeeding in health care than a user interface, a competitive price, and even magic. Any HIT applications that users want to run on their tablet will have to be redesigned to run on the smaller screens of the iPad and its competitors. At a time when HIT vendors are scrambling to add important new features, redesigning user interfaces for the iPad may not get done.

    Health care is a high-demand enterprise IT environment, while the iPad (and most competitors) are consumer electronics products. This is a huge gap for everyone except maybe Cisco and RIM.

    Users need battery life that lasts a full shift (up to 12 hours) and devices with commercial grade rechargers that recharge multiple devices at a time. A tangle of wall warts and cables to tablets laying in a pile on a counter will get old fast. Imagine the infection control risk that rat’s nest represents.

    Finally these tablets will get dropped, splashed (you don’t want to know), and wiped down with disinfectants that deteriorate most known plastics. Aftermarket cases can help, but then they cover the beauty, add weight and come with other hassles.

    I think the development of this market still has quite a ways to go…

    One thing seems clear, the number of tablet manufacturers that will drive adoption (including, you know, applications to run on them) based on a proprietary platform is very small. With their advantages, Apple might pull it off. It will be much harder slog for RIM. No other vendor has a chance with a proprietary platform.

  • cmw

    These devices will remain, “Viewing and Consuming,” devices for HealthCare, until handwriting and voice become integrated applications. No EMR can function with only a virtual keyboard for data input.