Tablets have made a big splash with the general public, and they're wetting more people and places than initially expected. According to market research firm Canalys, tablet shipments will equal combined PC and notebook shipments worldwide in 2014; and in 2015, the number of tablets sold is set to surpass the combined numbers of desktops and notebooks sold.
With so many people attached to the look and feel of the form factor, tablets are naturally making their way into the enterprise, but not as fast as one might expect. A few obstacles are slowing down enterprise adoption.
Then again the slate is not exactly new as a work tool. What we're seeing now constitutes a second wave of tablets in the corporation. The first wave began over a decade ago, with ruggedised slates designed solely for enterprise use - and even for very specific job functions. It's safe to say that nobody ever lounged around their living room with one of the rugged forerunners of the iPad in their hand.
The world changed in 2010 when Apple released the iPad to the market place. It was love at first site for the general public. In keeping with the trend towards consumerisation of IT, people now tend to bring iPads into work.
Even when they don't bring their devices into the office, employees certainly don't leave their preferences and expectations at home. Just ask any IT director who has tried to get users to take an interest in clunky legacy systems after those same users have been seduced by the intuitive interfaces and sleek designs of their consumer platforms.
Consumer tablets would not be a problem for IT departments if workers only wanted to use them for web browsing. But what characterises this second wave is that people are now looking to the thin and highly portable form factor as a general work tool. They want to carry the devices around all day and run business applications on them.
Choosing the right tablet
Of course, iPads are not the only consumer tablets on the marketplace - far from it. Samsung has made a strong showing with their Android-based platforms. If Microsoft can get its act together, they may also make a strong showing - especially in the enterprise market, since many organisations have been waiting for a solid Windows-based system to more easily integrate with existing Microsoft-based infrastructure. In the long run, Microsoft will also have some advantages on convertible (or 2-in-1) platforms.
According to IDC analyst Jitesh Ubrani: "The choice of operating system will be a key differentiating factor when it comes to success in the commercial segment. Though Android and iOS will remain dominant, we expect Windows-based devices to capture more than a quarter of the market as its benefits become apparent thanks to growing adoption of 2-in-1s."
The choice of tablet comes down to how an organisation structures its Bring Your Own (BYO) policy. No IT department is ready to open up and accept absolutely any device type on the network. However, many do accept a wide range of platforms when device usage is restricted to simple functions, such as email and web browsing.
As people start to use tablets for general-purpose computing, running enterprise applications and editing documents, the range of acceptable models shrinks dramatically. It's too difficult to track software assets on a wide array of platforms, and it's even harder to protect confidential data and prevent the spread of computer viruses on a diverse set of hardware and operating systems.
Gartner expects that because IT departments aren't doing a good enough job setting up dual personas, the situation will get so bad that by 2017, "40% of enterprise contact information will have leaked on to Facebook via employees' increased use of mobile device collaboration applications."
Gartner also worries that not enough organisations are doing what it takes to remove data from personal devices when people leave the company. According to the research firm: "Few companies have developed policies for proper disposal of enterprise information on mobile devices, as the process is complex and difficult to verify. The problems are exacerbated in BYOD programmes."
Another source of leakage is when users back up data from their devices to storage locations outside the organization's control. The worst case is when the user backs the data up onto a personal cloud service.
The only sure way to protect against data linkage from backups is to set up secure containers for business content. But this is more easily said than done. The way of setting up a secure container is always device specific, and frequently requires the use of APIs provided by the manufacturer.
What's more, the method you choose for containerisation has to be compatible with your device management platform. One final snag is that if you choose to use the APIs of one Android-based platform (for example, Samsung's Safe), you can't use the same approach on Android tablets that aren't manufactured by Samsung.
Some CIOs choose to minimise exposure by providing clear rules in their device usage policies and getting commitment from anybody who brings his or her own. But to really overcome the challenges of managing and securing tablets, the easiest and most effective thing for an IT director to do is to restrict the number of acceptable models for any usage that goes beyond email and web browsing.
Building complete solutions around tablets
Aside from the issues around managing and securing platforms, when it comes to fitting tablets into business processes, consumer devices pose a few other problems for IT departments. The first challenge is that product life cycles are different for consumer-grade versus enterprise-grade models.
Manufacturers of consumer IT tend to use shorter life cycles, with shorter term support contracts. Rolling out complex solutions to a large number of users can take a long time - sometimes as long as it takes for a consumer product to go from initial release to end-of-life. Enterprises need more stability, and they need long term support contracts.
Manufacturers of consumer products rarely spend enough time catering to enterprise needs because they generally get less revenue from the enterprise market than they get from consumers markets. To overcome the mismatch between consumer products and enterprise markets, some organisations are turning to value-added resellers (VARs) who provide longer support contracts and contracts that include technology refresh.
Some VARs provide extra accessories and enclosures; and some provide help in deploying devices and maintaining a pool of spares to get workers back up when they lose their devices or when their devices break.
The second challenge is that fragile consumer-grade tablets don't hold up well when carried around all day in a hurried office environment. People tend to drop them, bump them against walls, or spill coffee on them. It gets worse when workers take a consumer device out in the field.
Many organisations have solved the problems associated with bringing fragile consumer tablets into the workplace by taking one of two approaches. The first is to shop for ruggedised hardware - or at least, hardware that is slightly ruggedised, a little thicker and a little heavier than what people use at home.
Take for example, BA CityFlyer, who have improved aircraft turnaround times by equipping ground crews with tablets and apps to allow them to get the information they need and to post updates from the tarmac. The tablets they user are light enough to hold in one hand, but they solid enough to withstand short drops onto a hard surface.
In other industries, warehouse managers are using slightly ruggedised tablets they can hold in their hands as they walk across the warehouse floor. When they get calls and need quick access to information to answer questions, they have the data at their fingertips.
The second approach companies are taking to overcome the fragility of consumer tablets is to allow a limited number of consumer models into the enterprise, whether those devices be employee owned or company owned. To protect the device from workplace hazards, IT directors have enclosures built to meet specific requirements.
Take for example, Fleming's Steakhouse in the United States, who put tablets into a specialised protective folder and use it as a wine menu. Customers get to select wines from the tablet based on their tastes and on what they plan to eat. They can also place their wine order directly on the same device.
On the lower end of the food chain, some quick-serve restaurants have a mobile point-of-sales (PoS) terminal built to help them through the lunchtime rush. A consumer tablet is inserted into a customised enclosure that includes a cash drawer and a credit card reader. When the extra cash register is no longer needed, workers remove the tablet from the enclosure and use it for other tasks, such as inventory management, or line busting at the drive through. The same tablet may even be used by the restaurant manager to do things like scheduling and payroll.
Finally, no tablet solution is complete without business apps. Most organisations are finding off-the-shelf apps lacking and choose instead to develop their own, or have their favourite SI do the job for them. Nowadays tools exist to make the development process relatively easy.
For the time being, the app that seems to work the best across industries is sales force automation (SFA). Many companies are winning the hearts of their sales forces by providing access to SFA on consumer tablets Simply showing up at a customer site with an iPad helps a sales person get the customer's attention.
Coca Cola Company Consolidated discovered this in North America. CIO Onyeka Nchege says: "As soon as the rep walked in the door, the customer would immediately walk over and say, 'Is that an iPad?'" All of the sudden, the same restaurant owners who wouldn't stand still for our reps would walk over and ask to have a look."
This second wave of tablets in the enterprises has only just begun. Perhaps the most important thing IT directors have learned at this early stage is that just because tablets are tremendously popular among consumers, doesn't mean they can be taken into the enterprise as is. The good news is that with a few adjustments, one can use this attractive form factor to create new opportunities.