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Tablet PC's: a serious business tool or yet to make the grade?

by Andrew Stillwell , 07.08.2012

There’s no doubt the tablet has become a sought after consumer product, and many expected tablets to take the enterprise market by storm and become a valuable business tool…but has this actually happened? And if not, why not?

Tablets remain a ‘third’ device

The timing would seem perfect for tablets. An increasingly mobile workforce requires cutting-edge devices to enable them to both work remotely and productively anywhere, at any time, and to serve the needs of their personal lives. Tablets look well positioned to provide exactly that, and yet usage hasn’t spread as quickly through the business world as it has for consumers. But why?

Firstly, and critically, businesses have struggled to accommodate tablets. Smartphones and laptops are accepted as tried and trusted mobile devices. From the point of view of both the employer, who must consider the additional cost of providing and supporting a third device, and the employee, who must carry these devices, for the tablet to become viable and indispensible it must first displace either one of these devices. For reasons of practicality, common sense, and perhaps vanity (anyone making a phone call via their tablet on public transport will undoubtedly receive a few very British ‘tuts’), it is almost impossible to see tablets replacing the smartphone.

As such, the laptop is the most vulnerable device to the rise of the tablet, and yet two key qualities mean the laptop has not yet been replaced as a mobile device for business; form and function. While laptops are efficient and effective mobile devices, they also fit seamlessly into the office environment, requiring few additional peripherals whether at the desk or in the airport. Meanwhile, any employee currently attempting to spend the day at their desk working on their tablet would find it very difficult either to be as productive as they would be on a laptop or PC, or to convince their colleagues they were even attempting to be. Tablets were developed initially for consumers and while it’s possible to attach a keyboard to some, they are yet to come with the necessary hardware for desktop working i.e. docking stations. There is also a current shortage of effective mobile business apps which provide laptop-level productivity, in particular for the Windows-based Office applications which the vast majority of businesses depend on for creating and communicating content.

What’s needed for tablets to become considered as serious business tools?

For usage to become widespread, tablets need to present a solid business case for investment and prove they can replicate (and improve on) the versatility and functionality of the laptop. It’s not just about portability and connectivity; tablets must allow employees to be as productive as they would be sitting in the office. There are four key areas to be addressed:

Communication & organisation – having instant access to colleagues and clients via a variety of channels (email, IM, voice, video, and social media), and being able to access calendar and contacts, is critical. This is an area where tablets can be said to deliver what a business needs.

Mobility – it is vital for mobile employees to be connected wherever they are, and with in-built 3/4G and Wi-Fi capabilities this is exactly what a tablet provides. Tablets are also lighter, smaller, and easier to carry than most laptops. In addition, consumer apps such as maps and other location-based services can be extremely valuable to the employee who is trying to get to a client meeting or simply find a place to eat.

Productivity – development in this area will be critical to whether tablets ultimately succeed in becoming an indispensable mobile business tool. It must be possible for employees to be as productive on their tablet as they would be in the office; as of yet, this hasn’t been achieved. The huge success of the iPad amongst consumers means the majority of apps have been developed for the consumer market. Developers have been slow to create key productivity apps needed for business, limited by the omnipotence of the iPad and compatibility issues between this device and the required mobilisation of Windows-based Office applications.

The future success of tablets is tied to the app-usage case. A greater number and wider variety of business apps which mobilise commonly-used desktop applications for tasks such as document creation, management and presentation, sales-, field-, and CRM-services, and business information, are required for tablets to succeed. These must offer at least the same functionality as a desktop, ideally with enhancements which optimise them for mobile usage. Those companies currently making a concerted effort to integrate tablets into their business are often resorting to either developing the apps they need themselves, or paying developers. The resources required to do this, alongside the cost of a tablet, pushes the investment (and enthusiasm) necessary for widespread tablet usage outside the reach of many businesses.

Security – the increasing trend towards BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and movement towards a more diverse range of operating systems (OS) on employer-supplied devices, have brought significant data security challenges for businesses. The options for implementing effective management policies and securing data on tablets are currently relatively limited and poorly established. But there are exceptions; Good Technology, and the newly released BlackBerry Mobile Fusion software being a couple of well-known options. However, decision makers will need reassurance regarding the security of corporate data accessed and saved on tablets before recommending widespread roll-out.

Will the required developments be delivered?

This will depend on whether tablet manufacturers and app developers increase their focus on business usage, and on whether businesses can find employees for whom the tablet is more appropriate than the laptop. Alongside software developments there are a number of hybrid devices being designed for business usage, i.e. tablets with keyboards and desktop docking stations, or laptops with detachable touch screens. However, even if ultimately the tablet in its current form doesn’t make the grade, you can guarantee that as a ubiquitous consumer gadget it will have a strong influence on the development of future mobile business devices.