Sprint users replacing notebooks with tablets

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sprint Nextel Corp plans to expand its tablet computer portfolio in 2011 to court business customers looking to replace expensive laptop computers with the lower cost devices, according to a top executive for the No. 3 U.S. mobile operator.

People compare the performance of Apple's iPad (L) and Samsung's Galaxy Tab tablet devices at the Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA) consumer electronics fair at "Messe Berlin" exhibition centre in Berlin, September 2, 2010. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The company’s business markets President, Paget Alves, said on Thursday that tablets, which are connected wirelessly to the Internet using networks such as Sprint’s are the hottest new gadget among corporate clients.

“There’s a lot of interest in tablets, a greater degree of interest and faster adoption than I’ve seen in any other product ...,” Alves told Reuters in an interview. “I can’t think of anything that’s moved this quickly.”

In particular, he said businesses are looking to tablets to replace notebooks for employees such as salespeople who need to view corporate information such as spreadsheets, but are not involved in creating those documents themselves.

“Those users, which are the majority of service companies employees, can easily be accommodated by a tablet and therefore they end up with a cheaper alternative to the notebook,” Alves said.

Since Apple Inc kicked off the market with its popular iPad tablet earlier this year, rivals such as South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd have been rushing to get tablets to market.

Alves said chief information technology officers (CIOs) have been asking him about RIM’s upcoming PlayBook tablet, but stopped short of saying Sprint would sell the device.

Many corporations use BlackBerry because of its mobile email service, which RIM supports on its own server computers.

“I’ve met with a fair number of CIOs who’ve a strong relationship with RIM and have the interest in something that’s complementary to the server based BlackBerry service,” he said.

But he said these executives are reserving judgment until they try out the PlayBook, which is expected to have several competitors when it is launched in early 2011.

“There is interest (in PlayBook), but until there’s more information available and they have the opportunity to try the product, it’s a little early to tell,” Alves said.

Alves expects as many as 12 new tablets to be unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and said that, while Sprint would not carry all of these devices, it will broaden its selection well beyond the Samsung Galaxy, which it now sells.

“We expect to have a broad portfolio of tablets in 2011,” the executive said.

Analysts have estimated RIM will ship between 2 million and 4 million PlayBook tablets in its fiscal 2012, which begins in late February 2011. In comparison, Apple has sold 7 million iPad’s since its launch in April and analysts expect another 5 million holiday-quarter sales.

Sprint is also planning to start a massive restructuring of its own network in 2011, including shutting down its older Nextel network, which is mostly used by business customers because of its walkie-talkie service, but has been bleeding customers in recent years.

This means Alves will have to lead the charge in efforts to convince the roughly 6 million business customers using the Nextel network to move to Sprint’s more modern CDMA network, which offers data services such as wireless Internet.

Reporting by Sinead Carew; editing by Andre Grenon