Should IT departments take the tablet?

As major technology providers plan to introduce tablet devices in the UK over the coming months, how will tablets impact IT departments?

As major technology providers plan to introduce tablet devices in the UK over the coming months, how will tablets impact IT departments?

Given Apple's iPad success, tablet devices are set to become among the most popular computing devices of 2010. Apple's iPad, has already shifted 3.27 million units worldwide, according to Apple's latest results. As the consumerisation of IT becomes more prevalent, businesses are looking to support devices such as Apple's iPad. But with IT experts arguing that the iPad increasingly fails to meet enterprise-specific needs, IT departments could benefit from focusing on supporting more business-aware tablet and slate devices, which are due to be launched later this year.

A bite of the Apple

"I would ditch my iPad in a minute if someone gave me something more integrated with what [our business] uses," says Freeform Dynamics research director, Dale Vile. "Apple doesn't understand the mainstream business environment. There's now an opportunity for HP, Dell, Fujitsu and other brands to provide business-focused [tablet] devices and the support that goes with them, offering IT department-friendly integration and interoperability."

Cisco will launch its tablet device, Cius, later this year, claiming it as the first-of-its-kind mobile collaboration business tablet. Delivering virtual desktop integration alongside integration with the Cisco support suite, it boasts a highly secure mobile platform, business application integration, interoperability and multi-party conferencing. Such models as Android-based Cisco's Cius could plug the gap in the market where Apple fails to address enterprise needs.

Putting tablets into business

"What needs to happen is for business application developers to develop apps for iPads and other platforms. The Cisco tablet is a business-specific model built around unified communications and adapting Cisco suite of products to the device," says Ovum analyst, Jim Renowden.

Samsung and LG have both announced plans to introduce tablet devices based on Android OS by the end of year while HP will introduce a tablet based on Windows OS. "Android is a better option as manufacturers are more able to customise software platforms," continues Renowden, "There are rumours about a Blackberry tablet. RIM are strong in enterprise with its smartphones. If the Blackberry tablet happened, they would be a strong contender."

But with so many different operating systems and devices, application developers may struggle to support the different platforms. On the Computer Weekly Developers Network, mobile development specialist Terence Eden said it is near impossible to build cross-platform mobile apps.

"Porting apps to Windows Phone 7 from iPhone is close to impossible in the traditional sense of porting. This is simply because iPhone development requires a Mac running OS X and WP7 development requires a PC running Windows Vista or Windows 7. So, essentially, I have to buy another machine and/or another operating system if I want to do both," he says. This is as true for tablet applications running on different platforms as for smartphones - like a Windows 7 slate compared to an iPhone OS-based iPad.

"While there are some coding similarities, the platforms are different enough to render porting ineffective. It really does require ground-up rewrites. Of course, the same assets can be used - graphics, network APIs, sounds, etc - but the user interface guidelines are strict enough to warrant redoing many screens from scratch," adds Eden.

Tablets for tasks

Rather than a general-purpose computing device for office-based workers, Renowden anticipates tablet devices will be best utilised by those working out in the field with applications used for specific tasks. "The people who are most likely to use tablets are sales people and those working in marketing, mobile people on the road who need access to e-mail and access to presentations," he says.

Renowden believes products have some mileage to cover before iPad-standard devices are suitable for enterprise use. "The main thing is they're not cheap," he says. "It's important that businesses have a strategy for why they're deploying tablets rather than keeping up with the fashion."

Tablet devices will be available in the UK by the end of this year and they won't be cheap. Business users will most likely make use of them for specific tasks and not general purpose computing. But regardless of whether the IT department develops a strategy for tablet devices, CIOs must acknowledge their current use in enterprise. Along with tablets, the Amazon Kindle will hit the UK on 27 August this year, retailing at £109. Whether e-readers will offer business value over tablets and slates remains to be seen.

An IT strategy for tablets

by Freeform Dynamics research director, Dale Vile

Acknowledge devices

"Smart CIOs have begun by monitoring what's going on and policies. You can stop [end-users] connecting to the [Microsoft] Exchange server but you can't stop them installing software of their laptops and synchronising with their tablets. Set ground rules on what can and cannot be connected."

Monitor usage

"The more management and monitoring tools IT departments use, the better the business can ascertain where tablets are increasing productivity. "If it's starting to solidify, representing business benefit, you can give direct support or provide an alternative model to do the same thing."

Watch costs

"Apple iPads are currently retailing at up to £700. Once we see prices come down and lower cost, fully spec, IT-friendly devices enter the market, we'll see slates find their place and become part of IT's armoury."

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