Tablets in the enterprise: Challenges of office mobility

Moving the physical desk environment onto a tablet-based one brings a host of IT obstacles

Predicting the demise of the physical desk has been a bit like predicting the paperless office. While great in theory, there are many constraints, often personal and social rather than technical, which makes the reality somewhat more complex to achieve.

However, the comfort and attachment to wood, aluminium and a generally cheap veneer is wearing thin for a number of reasons, some driven by the organisation but, perhaps more importantly, many others driven by the individual.

Mobile is becoming the default and accepted way of working. The humble laptop and mobile phone are rapidly being usurped by the smartphone and the current generation of touchscreen tablets, enabling users to shift a significant part of their IT away from a traditional desktop or laptop.

Part of the swing towards tablets is due to the significant consumer success of Apple and the Android platforms, soon to be joined by enterprise tablets based on Microsoft’s Windows 8.

All of these devices capitalise on ease of use, internet connection and the availability of a huge number of cheap or free applications. With consumer expectations in mind, it should be no surprise that employees would then also expect to use their consumer devices for work purposes, often termed bring your own device (BYOD). While this crossover might seem reasonable for the employee, it does open up significant challenges and change for the organisation.

To ensure tablets are secured and managed for enterprise use, whether employee-owned or provided by the business, introduces a requirement to investigate mobile device management and mobile application management tools such as those from suppliers AirWatch, Exitor, Fiberlink, MobileIron and Zenprise.

Tablet vulnerability

These may offer many different ways to address the vulnerability of tablets used for business purposes, whether provided by the business or employee-owned, but there are several guiding principals that enterprises can use as a starting point:

  • Assume all tablets are vulnerable. The flexible and generally more relaxed employee attitude to mobile working means that organisations should start from the assumption that all mobile devices can be compromised and connected to unsecured networks, whether employees adopt BYOD or not.
  • Establish a ranked information security architecture. Despite elevated mobile risks, not all users, locations or applications are equally troublesome and not all information equally sensitive or private. Levels of protection and control should discriminate based on risk. This is where collaboration between the IT and business functions is vital.
  • Protect precious data at rest. This is particularly important for data on tablets, which are attractive to thieves and can easily be lost or stolen. However, all data held within the organisation should also be treated this way. A stolen executive’s tablet, with appropriate credentials, could easily be used to access or compromise centrally stored sensitive information.
  • Secure tunnels. All access and information on the move should be over a protected and authenticated connection as no matter what networks are in use, there is always a risk of being snooped on. Some public Wi-Fi hotspots, for example, are more vulnerable than others but all carry a risk and it is not safe to expect users to make an informed or correct decision about which ones to use.
  • Constrain and project. Some services are too important to risk any data ever being left on a mobile device. With a suitable network connection, these are best hosted from inside a secured facility, with access projected to the tablet. With no client application, when the connection is terminated, all residual information disappears. n Partition work and home. Whether it is their own tablet or enterprise issue, employees will always have some personal use, whether it is accessing social networks, checking sports results or storing their CV.  Ensuring that such use is accommodated – but kept separate from corporate activity – will reduce the risk of crossover.
  • Bait and switch. There will always be risky consumer applications that employees would like to use – some cloud-based storage services being an example – but if the organisation compromises a little, individuals can be won over. Swallow the cost of offering a more employee-desirable tablet on condition that the safer, corporate alternative apps are used. Then enforce with contract conditions and, ideally, supplement with technology to bar consumer applications.

Expensive luxury

The humble laptop and mobile phone are rapidly being usurped by the smartphone and the current generation of touchscreen tablets

Rob Bamforth

Management and security are not the only extra costs of the mobile flexibility provided by tablets. As working patterns continue to evolve, the dedicated desk with its associated services per employee are starting to look like an expensive luxury – or just plain inflexible.

Employees are more comfortable, and potentially more productive, with their mobile technology and do not need to be tied to a specific desk. But they do need widespread and reliable network access, and Wi-Fi is going to be playing an increasingly important role.

Unlike the indoor coverage of cellular networks, which requires support and devices such as femtocells from mobile carriers (like Vodafone’s SureSignal and those planned by Orange and O2), Wi-Fi coverage is one issue that the IT department will be expected to fix by itself. Positioning wireless access points in meeting rooms and office spaces might seem an easy way to deliver sufficient coverage, but there is an increasing problem of getting connectivity in more unusual spaces within the business premises, and this has been particularly exacerbated by the adoption of tablets.

Taking it everywhere

Tablet users casually expect to have decent coverage everywhere, not just around desks and traditional work spaces. They want to access and share information with colleagues in the corridors, outside the buildings, in the staff cafeteria and even in less IT-friendly locations, such as the toilets. Since this is a large element of the informal and collaborative appeal of this class of devices, there will be pressure on IT to provide network coverage.

As tablets continue to encourage informal in-office mobility, more organisations are going to find that their network infrastructure will need to evolve to keep pace. Wi-Fi suppliers that aim to deliver blanket areas of coverage, such as Ruckus, Extricom and Aruba, become increasingly important in this evolution. Different application usage patterns will also affect the network as the current generation of mobile tablet devices – lighter, with longer battery life than laptops, but with larger screens than mobile phones – may deliver the form that communications has been looking for with a different kind of mobile video experience.

Despite Cisco’s withdrawal of its short-lived Cius tablet, Avaya has stuck with its Flare experience, as well as acquiring Radvision with its Scopia mobile video client, and other software video suppliers, such as Vidyo, have also been making significant progress with high-definition video-conferencing on everyday mobile devices. While it might not be acceptable or comfortable to make video calls in crowded public places (“Here I am, on the train, as you can see it’s packed with irritable commuters”), within the work place it is a different story.

The way a tablet has to be held – like a clipboard – means it can readily be shared with others who might need to be involved in the visual communication, but in a far more ad hoc and natural way than perched in a line looking at a full-sized conferencing system. Video can be incorporated to supply information and communication into a business process without getting in the way or forcing the user to move away from where the action is. Tablets are already being used as casual information access devices and most come with cameras. Does this mean that these tablets are the only tools where two-way video communications will make sense? By no means, since fixed desktop and telepresence systems have their place and valid use cases.

But unconstrained video on a tablet, unified into the other on-device communications tools available could be the key to unlocking a much wider adoption of visual communications. This too will have a massive effect on the size and performance of the network. The effect of mass adoption of tablets in the enterprise could be far more significant than either the desktop or laptop computer.

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