Do you need tablets in your workplace?

Consumers have shown a massive appetite for tablets, but IT departments have not presented the same level of eagerness

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Consumers have shown a massive appetite for tablets, but IT departments have not presented the same level of eagerness.

There can be no doubting the impact of the current generation of touchscreen tablets.

Sparked four years ago by the launch of Apple’s iPad – a device some doubted would have a place for most users – consumers have shown a huge appetite for the handheld touchscreen form.

So much so, that even supermarkets now have their own brand of tablets.

With such rapid and wide-ranging consumer adoption of smartphones and tablets, it was almost inevitable that people would want to use these devices as tools for work, but IT departments and corporate strategies have struggled to keep up with user thinking and expectations.

Consumerisation and shadow IT are the oft-used expressions for the shift in power from IT manager to the user, but organisational responsibilities mean there is still a balance to be struck between corporate control and user choice. This has led to a collection of acronyms to define some slightly formalised alternate routes for using mobile IT in the workplace – for example, BYOD (bring your own device), CYOD (choose your own device), and COPE (corporate owned, personally enabled).

Niche tablets

Some suppliers of Windows-based hardware have released tablets that are suited to more rugged or challenging industrial environments. In this sector, there are larger suppliers, such as Panasonic with its ToughPad, and a raft of specialists with long pedigrees in supplying industrial IT, such as Motion Computing, Trimble, Xplore Technologies, Getac, DLI, Handheld Europe and Twinhead. Most of these companies started with rugged PCs, laptops or stylus-driven handheld devices, and have now added touchscreen tablets to their ranges. However, many have also hedged their bets with operating systems and offer Android-based devices too.

Within this spectrum of operating models, there are significant details to sort out – for example, who pays the bills, owns the contract, manages the apps, handles support, deals with network providers, secures the device, data or apps.

Skewed statistics

There is a strong feeling that the role of the tablet as a tool for business is growing, but finding the right statistics to back this up is a challenge. So too is determining which models and manufacturers of tablets are making the most headway in business.

The problem is the consumerisation crossover. It might be straightforward to find total market shares of different brands, but the tablet segment is much more oriented towards consumer use. Some employees are bringing their own devices to work informally, so basing the percentage shares on “official” deployments is going to be flawed.

Some interesting intelligence can be gleaned from a recent survey by iPass, the enterprise mobility provider, published in September 2013. The results indicate how many employees own the following tablet types:

  • Apple iPad – 63%
  • Samsung Galaxy – 11%
  • Google Nexus – 5%
  • Other Android – 10%
  • Windows 8/RT – 6%
  • Other – 5%

However, these percentages are skewed towards the typical iPass user community, which will more often be executives and knowledge workers, often labelled white collar. What about the task-based workers, of which blue collar once formed a significant subset? These employees are also likely to have bought a tablet.

Tailoring your tablets

Not everyone expects or wants to bring their own tablets to work, and might expect their employer to provide one. For the enterprise, this makes the challenge of strategic tablet management harder. Policies will need to be set that accommodate multiple ownership models, attuned to the needs of different roles of employees, as well as different brands of tablets and their operating systems (OS).

Despite the potential business opportunity, tablet suppliers have been slow to offer extra features to help organisations bring tablets into the corporate fold.

As the iPass figures indicate, Apple still holds the strongest overall position and, to complement the almost devotional attractiveness of its devices to individuals, it is slowly adding more enterprise software support into the operating system. iOS 7 has made the platform more secure with per-app virtual private network (VPN) connections, automatic encryption of all data stored by third-party apps and “managed open in”. The latter allows users to choose which programs they use to open email attachments, but it is not as fine-grained as many container-based approaches, which are becoming available on all platforms.

Supporting business users

Apple is also helping to support larger-scale deployments with additional tools. It has a volume-purchase programme through its App store, and a quick glance on the Apple store indicates a range of third-party “rack, stack, sync and charge” products from suppliers such as Bretford, LocknCharge and XtremeMac.

Among the Android crowd, Samsung has taken steps with its Knox implementation of Android for the enterprise. A more secure operating system and the ability to open apps in a separate layer on the device means users can switch easily between work and play, while providing protection for the organisation against malware and a mechanism for third parties to extend further. But in the mixed-tablet environment that most IT departments find themselves dealing with, something similar will need to be found to support other platforms. As Samsung’s third-party partners already include AirWatch, MobileIron and Citrix for mobile device management (MDM), Knox appears to be a step in the right direction.

Google’s software products, such as Google Apps, make up the company’s biggest strengths, rather than its hardware. For example, its Nexus tablets are much cheaper than other tablets but, without serious enterprise support plans, the company will struggle with large-scale business deployments. Other Android suppliers seem more aligned to business needs, such as LG’s Gate (Guarded Access To Enterprise), which tackles corporate security concerns with support for enhanced Microsoft Exchange Active Sync, a VPN, encryption and links to third-party mobile device management providers.

The outsiders

Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD and HDX could also find a place in the list of enterprise tablets. Its extensions to the Android platform are not overly expansive, but it is heading in the right direction, with MDM integration hooks, a native VPN client and device-level encryption.

One company that has seemed to squander its enterprise credentials in the mobile space is Microsoft. Despite having tablet PCs and slates many years ago, it has so far failed to capture the imagination of users and was late to the BYOD bandwagon. Confusing messages around operating system versions has not helped, nor has the disconnect between phone and tablet versions of the OS. Unifying the software platforms, but more importantly the marketing messages, is vital.

Windows tablet hardware has improved, especially with the Surface Pro and an injection of  "Nokia thinking" (as a result of Microsoft’s acquisition of the company), which has also brought good hardware in the tablet end of the Lumia range. Other stalwarts of the PC industry – which has declined amid the burgeoning tablet market – are following suit, with suppliers such as Asus, Dell, Lenovo, HP and Toshiba offering tablet devices based on Windows.

There are also a number of manufacturers making ruggedised tablers (see Niche Tablets box). This is still a mobile opportunity that Microsoft can play for. The company’s enterprise credentials are strong, there are several suppliers that realise tablets are workhorses as well as entertainment screens, and the tablet opportunity and appetite stretches from the boardroom to workers in the most challenging outside environments.

But unlike the desktop era, the tablet era will have a much greater range of platforms and operating systems. Most employees will expect to use one as part of their work, but the case of who owns and supports the devices will vary from organisation to organisation. Management tools will need to be flexible over devices and their ownership, but tablet manufacturers will also need to be more adaptable in recognising that their devices will operate in mixed and diverse environments. Consumers might like this, but businesses will demand it, and rightly so.

Rob Bamforth is a principal analyst at Quocirca.

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