See also: Seven tablets for business

While the desktop and laptop PC has been around for around 25 years, the portable computing ballgame changed dramatically back in April 2010 when Apple released the first incarnation of its iPad tablet.

Just like the iPhone, released almost three years earlier, the iPad introduced a new format to business and consumer users alike, dispensing with a traditional QWERTY keyboard in favour of touchscreen-based data interface. The tablet computer had arrived.

The real selling attribute of the iPad and its successor, the iPad 2, is its styling and a new generation of applications created by an equally new wave of software houses and developers.

In parallel with the iPhone/iPad phenomenon, Google has been quietly seeding the smartphone and tablet computing arena with its open source Android operating system.

Now at version 3.0 Honeycomb, Android is licensed on a controlled freeware basis, meaning that vendor after vendor has embraced the OS, with more than 100 tablet computers unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas at the start of this year.

Like Apple’s iOS operating system, Android is both smartphone and tablet-centric, which perhaps explains why both operating systems have apps (short for applications) numbering into six figures.

For a CIO, however, tablet computers pose a purchasing and organisational headache, as a growing number of employees are buying iPads and Android tablets for themselves.

The has created something of a sea change in the IT purchasing/leasing arena, where traditionally an organisation’s IT department sourced and equipped a desktop or laptop computer for the company, and is generally responsible for maintaining the device.

Retailer’s review
John Bovill, commercial director at ladieswear retailer Jacques Vert, tested tablet computers for around two years in his previous post as group IT director of Aurora Fashions.

“Two years ago we trialled eight tablet computers in our stores, primarily to see how they fared in the retail environment,” he says.

The tablets were procured by Aurora’s IT team and, judging by visitors to the firm’s Coast, Oasis and Karen Millen stores, it became obvious that the portable computing landscape was changing, with customers using more and more portable devices, mainly smartphones.

While Bovill acknowledges the fact that staff increasingly brought their own portable devices to work with them, he thinks tablet computers should remain strictly within the controlled domain of the corporate IT department.

The reason for this, he says, is the fact that the software interface to the tablet is the key to its success, especially in a retail environment.

“We used software that auto-wiped everything if the tablet left the store,” he explains, adding that this level of control would be possible if non-company-sourced and controlled tablet computers were in operation.

Bovill says the arrival of the iPad in April 2010 was a game changer, as the supplier of Aurora’s original tablet computers then announced they were no longer supporting the original tablet computer as a result.

Bovill’s view of a tablet device in the retail environment is that it has three main and quite distinct functions: mobile point-of-sale (POS), customer relationship management (CRM) and an internet skin to company’s web portable (for in-store online sales/ordering).

But while Aurora’s IT department plans to continue sourcing and maintaining its own tables, Bovill foresees customers bringing their own portable devices into the stores and interacting with the company’s retail systems.

“The future is that the customer clearly wants Aurora’s software on their portable devices. This is a brand experience,” he says.

So where does this leave the tablet computer in Aurora’s operations?

“I’m not sure where it will end up. I can see a place for a tablet and a PC. They both have their strengths and weaknesses,” says Bovill, noting that, regardless of what technology arrives in the retail workplace, he views it as essential for the IT department to source and maintain the systems.

In September Aurora announced that staff at Coast, Karen Millen, Oasis and Warehouse stores in London would be issued with the iPad, through which they will be able to access a point-of-sale App. Aurora is adopting the tablet in a deal extension with BT Expedite.

The office experience
Harvey Nash, a C-level recruitment and outsourcing provider, is also following the tablet trent.

Marketing director and IT procurement manager Rob Grimsey agrees that tablets are something of a game-changer, but after reviewing the iPad, he and his team were unsure of how it could work in an office environment.

To help the company understand the role that the iPad plays in business, it conducted a survey of clients which concluded that the tablet computer was not just technology hype.

In the survey of 134 C-level subscribers to Harvey Nash’s online appointments service conducted in February and March this year, Grimsey reports that more than two-thirds of clients had either purchased a tablet device or were planning to do so within the next year.

Of these clients, 91 per cent said they believed the tablet increased their productivity, and 75 per cent said they were ‘surprised’ by how useful the device was.

The survey revealed a popular application for tablets was as portable presentation devices, with almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of tablet-wielding executives saying they had used tablets as presentation tools in a meeting.

Grimsey and his team were originally planning to source their iPads through Apple and its business dealer network, but the popularity of the device forced a rethink of the conventional procurement route.

“We ended up telling senior management to buy iPads themselves, and we reimbursed them for the purchase,” he explains. This approach has been successful, he says, especially since the Apple iTunes online store, where users download their apps, means that the IT department’s involvement with the tablet is significantly less than it would be for a laptop.

In the longer term Grimsey says that he would prefer to see iPads or Android tablets being purchased all on one go by the IT department, largely because of the potential volume sales discounts that would be available.

The analyst observation
According to Rob Bamforth, a principal analyst with Quocirca, the big question that a lot of IT managers are asking is whether the current generation of tablets are a threat to the laptop and desktop PC from an IT perspective.

There are, he says, clear parallels with the workstation-versus-PC argument of the early nineties, when it became clear that only a small percentage of the workforce ever really needed the power of the workstation.

“Most simply needed access to information and a bit of manipulation delivered by a PC,” he says, adding that, as staff are being liberated from their desks, do many really need anything more than a tablet to gain access to IT services?

Probably not, he concludes, which means of course that laptop and desktop deployments will be affected.

Tablets, says Bamforth, are fundamentally changing our relationship with technology and information, and their impact will persist long after the hype from the current frenzy of product releases has died down. 

Your tablet choice

Click here to see a slideshow of seven tablet PCs for business users