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Tablet PCs have made major inroads in the general marketplace with a whopping 34 million units shipped in Q2 2013. This ascent of the slate form factor may seem to have occurred over night. According to analyst house Canalys, tablets now account for 31 per cent of worldwide PC shipments. But many forget that the tablet form factor is not exactly new.

For more than a decade, field workers have been using ruggedized slates to perform inspection or equipment repair. Vendors experimented with different input mechanisms, including onscreen keyboards and various types of handwriting recognition with users holding a stylus to do their writing.

It wasn’t until Apple came out with the iPad that the tablet became a mainstream device. Other vendors have since followed suit with operating systems and hardware providing a similarly intuitive look and feel and Apple has lost its dominant position in the market.

CIO Stephan Conaway sums up the situation for the enterprise as follows: “Tablets are here to stay in one form or another. The sooner a corporate IT office deals proactively and positively with them the better for everyone.”

Conaway, CIO at London Borough of Brent says: “In many companies, undoubtedly, the trend started from executives or other well informed users smuggling in the devices under their trench coats. Most would believe that a progressive IT unit would have seen the trend before it created an issue and would have had plans in place to handle the evolution gracefully.”

Whether they saw the trend coming - and regardless of what they thought about tablets before - IT executives should now be asking the following six questions:

1. How far do we go in sanctioning the use of tablets?

In some cases, IT units just tolerate tablet use under a BYOD policy. In other cases, IT takes a more active role and actually champions tablet use for certain job functions.

Most BYOD policies support at least a limited set of tablet brands and configurations. This is because tablets have become such popular consumer devices, and it’s difficult to say “no” to senior executives who bring their personal slates into work expecting to use them for email and web browsing.

But no IT department can support absolutely any tablet that an employee brings to work. So the prudent CIO will make sure BYOD policies include strict limitations on exactly which devices are allowed.

Aside from general-purpose tablet use, some organisations have one or more job functions that can be well served by the light device with an outward-facing screen. Three types of workers that might immediately benefit from tablet apps are sales people, medical workers and field technicians.

IT directors need to find the right fit of device and apps to worker category. Getting the match wrong could lead to frustration among the user population, and consequently have a negative effect on productivity.

2. Which tablets do we bet on now and in the near future?

This is the million-dollar question. As industry analysts from Gartner wrote in a recent report, “The tablet market is still highly volatile. Through year-end 2013, we will see a lot of product experimentation as OEMs search for the optimum combination of sizes, prices and features to satisfy enterprise requirements.”

The volatility of size and shape is only one source of chaos. The industry hasn’t settled on a dominant OS either.

While Android leads as the operating system with the most unit sales across the market, Apple iOS has a richer ecosystem of application developers. With Windows 8 optimised for the touch interface on a tablet or hybrid form factor, Microsoft is also betting heavily that they will be able to gain a big share of the tablet market.

CIO Stephan Conaway says: “At Brent, we run iOS on mobile devices. It’s a solid, secure operating system with a very well developed ecosphere for software, provisioning, and development. Two of its biggest advantages are the automatic updating of the OS and the singularity of the offering.”

Yasmin Jetha, Group CIO at Bupa anticipates using all major models. “The business context is the most important consideration in selecting tablets,” she said. “With a range of businesses including home healthcare, hospitals, care homes, and funding, what really drives the device preference for us is the combination of form factor and availability of apps suited to the specific business process.”

Application vendors may favour iOS currently, but according to Canalys senior analyst Tim Shepherd, “Developers can and will quickly switch their priorities as different opportunities evolve and improve. We expect to see a substantial increase in the quantity, as well as the quality, of apps built or optimised for Android tablets over the next 12 months, as Google brings more attention to them through improvements to the Play store, and as the addressable base of devices continues to soar.”

3. For which user population will we promote the tablet form factor and what features do they need?

Yasmin Jetha says: “Bupa has been an early adopter of iPads. Way back when the first iPad was available, we provided them as ‘corporate devices’ to our executives and the board.

“The enthusiastic response meant we were able to extend quickly to where cost benefit trade-offs could be justified. One population of users we’ve equipped with iPad are road warriors, such as sales teams. We also have hospital workers using tablets. For example, in hospitals we own in Spain, our on-call radiologists can access images from Apple's iPads to evaluate cases remotely.”

Stephan Conaway reckons, “Office and personal productivity support are no brainers and come out of the box ready. The bigger gains are materialising as users start to take hold of their own processes and information and implement new procedures to improve their working environment. Some of the features workers need on tablets are electronic documents, electronic signatures, data collection, personal video conferencing, electronic forms creation, photographic documentation, and GPS identification of faults and services.”

4. Are tablets adequate replacements for notebooks?

A significant portion of the workforce has no need to type hundreds of lines of text. These workers, who represent a large market, are happy to be able to carry around a device in their hand, as long as the device interface is intuitive.

But the tablet won’t completely replace the notebook anytime soon. Too many people need to use the keyboard and mouse to type in substantial amounts of text.

As Gartner’s Leslie Fiering says, “Windows 8 tablets certainly come closer to providing full notebook functionality than iPads and other media tablets, but there are still trade-offs with the Windows 8 tablets.”

IT directors need to assess which user populations can get by with just a tablet, which groups need a notebook, and which workers need one of each. This makes the next question rather obvious.

5. Wouldn’t a hybrid give us the best of both worlds?

Vice president in Gartner’s mobile and client computing team, Fiering identifies three styles of computing and devices that suit each style. The pocket style calls for smartphones or handheld device that are always with you and allow you to perform messaging and receive alerts. The grab-and-go style calls for tablets, which allow the standing or walking worker to perform short tasks. Finally, the sit-down style is best served by notebooks for working at a desk to perform heavy text input and graphics creations.

Fiering says, “Because many users require more than one type of computing style in the course of their work day, the IT organisation is forced to buy and support multiple devices.

CIOs would love to simplify their support requirements and purchasing managers would love to reduce their spending by standardising on a single device that will converge the feature sets and functionality of several devices into the single one that ‘can do it all’.”

Many of the major notebook manufacturers identified this need for convergent devices as far back as 2001, and started experimenting with hybrids. But one of the big problems with the early versions of these platforms is still a big problem today. No matter how you design a hybrid, the screen has to swivel on a hinge, with wires passing through the hinge to allow signalling between the body of the device and the screen. Wear and tear on hinges causes problems with electrical connections.

Another big problem with hybrids is that instead of giving users the best of both worlds, one might say they give users the worst of both worlds. They’re too heavy to carry around in one hand, as you might do with a tablet. But their computing power is limited compared to notebook computers.

6. What new resources are required to support tablets?

“Ultimately, IS departments are there to ensure we provide the tools and the physical infrastructure to help everyone in the company do their job better, more easily, and at lower overall cost than they could before,” according to Bupa CIO Yasmin Jetha.

“The introduction of tablet devices is contributing to a change in the way we approach application architecture. We can no longer put together IS service just for the traditional enterprise desktop. We need architectures that are ‘end user’ device agnostic.”

As for securing tablets, these devices bring on no further risk than what organisations already experience with notebooks and smartphones. The biggest threat from all categories of mobile device has to do with the tendancy of users to carry them around outside the company premises.

As research firm Gartner puts it: “At the present time, the biggest risk when using mobile devices will continue to be potential exposure after device loss, and data leakage caused by users, rather than attacks caused by malware. Risk management is all about addressing the most likely risks first, and periodic reports of individual malicious executables have not changed the equation for managing the risks of mobile device use.”

In the end, the move towards tablet is mostly about giving users choice. Jetha said: “The physical and digital environment together undoubtedly create a positive workplace experience, and our role in IS to increase the choices for our employees to enable them to be both efficient and effective, and also to give of their best.

“Furthermore, with consumer brands so strong, we notice that a small, but growing number of our employees, have emotional links with their personal devices, which influences how they want to work. This is one of the reasons we allow access to corporate services from employees’ own devices.”

London Borough of Brent’s Stephan Conaway believes that “the point of the evolution is less about the technology and more about the enablement of the user base. In their eyes, freeing them from the locked down fascism of the buttoned-up corporate IT office.”

Perhaps it’s time to wipe the slate clean.