Will the Cius challenge the iPad's potential in health care or beyond?

Cisco may have the edge as an enterprise vendor, but Apple's devices are well known and have been in the market longer

Last week, Cisco Systems announced its Cius tablet. Weighing 1.15 lbs. with a 7-in. SVGA screen and powered by an Intel Atom processor and Google's Android OS version 2.2, the Cius is designed as part of a range of products for the enterprise that offer integrated solutions for every part of the network, including switches, cloud storage and collaboration tools.

The Cius is expected to ship early next year, and although no pricing is available, Cisco plans to keep the price below $1,000.

The Cius has a lot going for it, particularly in the enterprise space. With millions of iPad sales within a few months, Apple is generally considered a consumer company, and many CIOs are hesitant to use Apple products because the company offers no enterprise road map, whereas other vendors do (though it does offer enterprise services). Therefore, a competing tablet with similar capabilities from a trusted vendor is going to be attractive to CIOs.

That said, the iPad has some advantages. One is a jump on the competition. The iPad will have been out for nearly a year when the Cius ships. It also has a large installed base and end-user adoption (for home and/or work) and high visibility and familiarity.

Also, Apple's App Store includes a broad set of business-related apps. There are now multiple office suites along with business intelligence, CRM and project management products (as well as industry-specific apps). Google's Android Market will carry Cius applications created using a software development kit from Cisco.

Health care: The first battleground

One of the earliest industries to test and embrace the iPad has been health care. Health care in the U.S. was poised to embrace tablets as the industry started to move toward electronic medical records and needed a light, portable solution.

Conversations with a range of providers and facilities (including hospitals and private medical groups) reveal that health professionals (doctors, nurses, and other providers) overwhelmingly agree that the form factor is convenient to carry and introduces less of a barrier when seeing patients than carrying a laptop (or a laptop cart in many hospitals) into exam/hospital rooms. This is important for keeping the doctor engaged with the patient and able to read his or her body language.

Tablets also make it easier to illustrate conditions and potential treatment options, such as displaying fractures in an X-ray, showing the progress of healing, or providing details of the surgery and recovery process.

Is the Cius better than the iPad?

The truth is that for most hospitals and practices, there's really little difference between the Cius and the iPad (or a PC). Complying with HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and other privacy regulations is difficult if patient data is stored on any mobile or unsecure piece of equipment. As a result, the vast majority of facilities rely on thin clients and access to secure terminal services (typically Citrix ) for all patient information.

This pretty much levels the playing field between all computers or mobile devices from a technical perspective because a thin client can be installed on virtually any device and will provide the same levels of access and information regardless of size or manufacturer.

That said, not all devices are equal. Accessing a system designed to run in a traditional Windows desktop will be more difficult on a smartphone because of the limited screen real estate. (Citrix does offer solutions for creating compact displays.)

In the case of the Cius and the iPad, the smaller and lower screen resolution of the Cius could be a small disadvantage, particularly for reviewing medical images. However, the radiologists I spoke with admitted that the iPad might be fine for reviewing past scans or showing images to patients but wouldn't be on par with traditional imaging workstations.

IT vs. health care providers

With no major technical differences, the deciding factor between the Cius and the iPad may come down to what IT wants to purchase and support versus what physicians, nurses and other health care providers want. IT departments may feel more comfortable with the Cius because it is from a well-known vendor (especially since they're likely used to managing Cisco products).

Providers may prefer the iPad because it's a device they may already be familiar with and comfortable using. They might also already be using their own iPads on the job, and it may be harder for IT to sell the idea of using another device. (Every hospital I spoke with had physicians already using their personal iPads at work.) That would also reduce costs, as the hospital or medical group won't need to purchase tablets for those staff members.

Overall, it may come down to a battle of wills and political capital, and the organization that makes the decision could choose to have a single tablet issued to all staff or offer a mix of options. For example, a hospital could offer a Cius to those who haven't already purchased and begun using the iPad That could be a larger number once the Cius goes on sale next year.

The iPad does have an advantage beyond accessing records and other practice or hospital resources -- medical apps. Although there are medical reference apps in both Apple's App Store and Google's Android Market, the number of apps for Apple's iOS devices is broader and includes more specialized apps for physicians, nurses, EMTs and medical students (all vetted as secure and functional by Apple).

Note: For a broader look at iOS medical apps versus those for Android and BlackBerry devices, check out this page from iMedicalapps.com).

Beyond health care

Although the Cius and the iPad may be similar in abilities and in providing access to needed tools and services for health care, that won't be true for all industries. And some professions may be more suited to a device designed specifically for enterprises and core business functions, while others (most likely SMBs) will work prefer a stand-alone device with access to a wider range of creative apps.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Ryan was also the co-author of O'Reilly's Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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