Tablets for work: time for a clean slate?

They're coming anyway

There's a revolution going on in the enterprise, driven - usually - by the Apple iPad. Tablets are becoming increasingly visible at work but are they business tools or toys? Can they bring benefits to the business or are they just a security hole?

Before tablets, we saw laptops with rotating screens that could be converted into something looking very much like a slate.

Their key advantage was that they were running a standard operating system, usually Windows, that brought the benefits of familiarity from the points of view of both users and the IT department.

Then came the iPad, which quickly invaded the workplace as well as the home, and is now used widely in meetings for note-taking, email, web browsing and so on.

Estimates of the numbers of the devices in use inside the enterprise put them at around 200,000 and growing.

Interestingly, this cements the trend of consumer electronics leading the enterprise where 10 years ago, when PC penetration the reverse was true: barely half of homes had a PC and most didn't have an Internet connection.

However, while the iPad sports advances in usability and design, it doesn't run the same operating system as most other machines in the enterprise.

This means it can't run standard applications and management tools that would allow it to be incorporated easily into the enterprise network, a difficulty that can generate both cost and potential security issues.

Additionally, its functionality is geared more towards consuming content rather than creating it; in business, the requirement is more the reverse.

Living with slates

So users are bringing iPads into work and connecting them to the network. The clear implication is that there is a role for such a device.

They're being used in a variety of ways, including sales and stock management in a retail environment; professional services such as legal, where they're replacing paper for note-taking; outdoor usage by engineers working for utilities; in airlines at the check-in and elsewhere air-side, and even in the public sector where the police and the MoD have both expressed interest in using slates.

Assuming that such the device's function is business-oriented rather than just being cool, if they can't be properly managed, what's the way forward?

Ideally, a "slate" would offer the core advantages of the iPad, such as portability and ease of use, while being team players when it comes to the rest of the enterprise.

This means built-in sharing and security, ease of management, and use of standard file formats and applications.

Effectively, the solution is a PC in slate form - and hardware vendors are starting to deliver these, with a number of Windows 7-based slates already on sale and this year's CES -Consumer Electronics Show - showing many more from major vendors including Asus, Fujitsu, Lenovo and Samsung.

The key is to decide if slates fit into your business strategy and, in making that decision, a number of questions need to be answered. These include but are not limited to:

  • Can users be more productive using a slate, such as those out in the field?
  • Do slates make people more productive in meetings for taking notes and researching, rather than using a laptop?
  • What extra does a slate offer, such as portability and battery life, over and above a laptop?
  • Is that enough to warrant the additional cost of purchase, maintenance and support?
  • What do you do about the personally-owned slates that people bring to work?

The alternative is to ignore slates and pretend they'll go away. Chances are they won't and sooner or later they will become a headache. Far better now to determine the right way forward and make that clear to users and managers today. ®

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