The rise of the tablet computer has had a dramatic impact on all areas­ of computing, but as these devices enter the enterprise — many of them uninvited — they can bring with them as many challenges as they do benefits.

Because of this CIOs would be wise to consider not only what devices they think will benefit their organisations, but also when they will support them, and how.

In some cases adoption could lead to radical changes in network support, but avoiding an official embrace is likely to cause more problems in the long term.

Some 22 million tablets are expected to find their way into European hands this year alone, and although many, if not the majority, will make their way into consumer pockets many will appear in enterprise briefcases and meeting rooms as well.

Research published in March by analyst­ Forrester found that although around a quarter of enterprises are preparing for tablet use, very few were actually using them. This preparedness is wise: the tablet will make its way into businesses, and firms may feel forced to support them.

According to the research 70 per cent of firms are worried about the extra security burden that supporting consumer devices in the office causes, and around 60 per cent are worried about supporting the new devices.

Employees will want to connect their unsupported devices to internal networks, systems and software, meaning that there must be adequate provision for them.

Of course, their portable nature means that the enterprise could be leaking important information via the tablets, while also putting itself at risk of exposure to compliance and data protection regulators.

Forrester found a serious shortfall in enterprise support: just two per cent of firms are supporting their users’ devices, while 17 per cent are trialling their own choice of model — whichever that may be.

Although there is a wide choice of dev­ices available, the words ‘tablet computer’ bring to mind the iPad: Apple’s device is credited with kick-starting the market and continues to lead it.

It does have its limitations, of course: a lack of Flash support, no USB sockets and the Mac operating system will make for an unwieldy fit at most enterprises, yet where tablets are in use it is the iPad that makes a showing.

Common at meetings in the creative sector, the device, in both its first and second incarnations, has sold out almost immediately and continues to win over hearts and minds.

Samsung, which entered the market with the impressive Galaxy Tab, was unable to put forward any enterprise users, despite repeated ­requests, while the BBC, a known user of iPads, drew short of commenting on the use and advantages of the Apple device.

Where it is in use, the iPad is being used well, according to analysts. At Forrester there is an overriding feeling that the early leader will retain its hold on the market and will see off an increasing range of stiff competition. One Forrester analyst, Sarah Rotman Epps, has continuously flagged it as the dominant market leader.

"The competing products we’ve seen announced so far from Motorola, RIM, HP, and others, while impressive, have ­fatally flawed price and distribution strategies, which leads us to our call that of the 24.1 million tablets that will sell to US consumers in 2011, at least 20 million will be iPads,” she says.

But these are early days, and Rotman Epps says other devices are likely to follow.

“The tablet wars are far from over. We have yet to see a play from potential disruptors like Amazon, who could enter the market at a lower price point, or Sony and Microsoft, who could offer radically differentiated value propositions,” she adds.

“Things could get rowdy. But for now, Apple still defines the tablet market, with a product consumers will desire at a price that’s hard to beat.”

The consumer distinction is important perhaps, because while few companies will have handed out tablets to their ­users, many will have accepted an increasing ­responsibility for supporting them.

This may improve meetings, productivity, and to an extent outside perceptions of the business as being bleeding edge or trendy, but it may also weaken enterprise security and could, at least in large numbers, create a load on the network that sees other systems’ performance compromised.

Chris Spain, vice president for product management at Aruba Networks, says that an increased use of tablet computers and smartphones had taken IT departments from supporting just one set of assets to supporting users with up to four devices each, and warned that if left unchecked this could lead to institutionalised anarchy.

“There are new tablets coming out every­ month and making their way into enterprises. The IT team is challenged because it does not own the devices, but cannot ban them either. It has to scale to meet them, to support them, and to provision for them,” he explains.

Not supporting the devices, or at least not being prepared for them, means that firms will have to make fresh provisions for them each and every time a new tablet appears on the network.

This, of course, will create an ongoing burden for stretched IT departments and could lull administrators into accepting devices that do not belong to staff or are being used maliciously.

“If you provision for devices you can regulate their use and apply different policies to each one,” says Spain. “You can control the bandwidth they use and the material that they can access. Not doing so leads to institutionalised anarchy.”

More enterprise-friendly tablets are due to follow the iPad, and both Research in Motion with its BlackBerry PlayBook and HP have ­devices lined up for business use, while the Motorola Xoom and Asus Eee Pad Transformer, which run Android 3.0, and the Windows 7-based Acer Iconia W500, will all launch by the summer.

How well these fit into the market ­remains to be seen. Both HP and RIM already have an enterprise presence and the latter is deep into the heart of the enterprise communications network with its BlackBerry smartphones.

The introduction of a Windows-based tablet will have obvious enterprise appeal, as will the release of the Motorola and Asus Android models.

“Hewlett-Packard is planning to launch its TouchPad tablet this year. The tablet is based on the WebOS operating system just as the smartphones sold by HP’s Palm business unit,” says Gartner analyst Van Baker.

“Given the success of the iPad, many have speculated that there is no room for another tablet competitor beyond Apple and the Android tablets.”

However, it is the WebOS that may win the TouchPad its place in the enterprise. Baker says that HP had promised that its tablets would link into Palm OS smartphones as well as enterprise PCs, which will make supporting them easier.

“The company has made it clear that it is not an alternative to Windows but will be a supplement to Windows on their PCs when it arrives,” he adds.

“This alone will dramatically boost the appeal of WebOS to developers because it will dramatically increase the number of ‘sockets’ that developers can sell their applications into. WebOS on the PC should increase the number of applications available for the platform once it arrives.”

Baker believes that RIM and HP will challenge the iPad and the already popular Android alternatives, and that the strong eco-system around both could present a challenge to Apple. But first, he says, they may have to compete with each other to gain a foothold in the market.

“The iPad 2 is a very strong product in the market. It is a compelling platform in a beautifully designed package. The product has a growing number of applications that are tailored to the iPad,” he explains.

“Apple’s position will be hard to assail in the market. HP may find that the competitor they are up against in the tablet market is actually RIM more than Apple if they target the enterprise with the TouchPad."

The iPad has already won business fans, such as fashion firm Burberry, where it has been adopted internally and externally.

“Apple technology is completely integ­rated throughout our global organisation. They have so many different pieces of technology that suit different environments and needs and really showcase our multimedia content in exactly the way we would want it to be seen or heard,” says Burberry chief creative officer Christopher Bailey.

“Their greatest expertise is their ability to talk to so many different people, every­one from a three-year-old to a 70-year-old can play with their products because their designs are so engaging and instinctive.’’

How the other entrants expect to challenge this perception will vary, but those that do are likely to win enterprise contracts that see their devices rolled out to thousands of business users.

Then, when industry really does start taking its tablets it will be their real benefits that make them easy to swallow – as opposed to the sugared coating that the iPad’s style may provide.