Enterprise tablets: Choose a device nature that best supports cloud nurture

Which tablet will work best for an enterprise BYOD strategy? If you've done your back-end homework, it turns out that any of the top three or four will do just fine.
Written by Dana Gardner, Contributor

Now that server hardware decisions are no-brainers (thanks to virtualization and the ubiquity of multi-core 64-bit x86), deciding on the enterprise-wide purchase of a tablet computer types will be the biggest hardware choice many IT leaders will make.

This is the future of tablet devices: Rent it, log in, use it, move on.

So what guides these tablet decisions? Do the attributes of the mobile device and platform (the nature of the thing) count most? Or is it more important that it conforms to the fast-changing needs of the back-end services and cloud ecosystem? Can the tablet be flexible and adaptive, to act really as many client types in one (the nurture)?

Given how the requirements from enterprise to enterprise vary so much, this is a hugely complex issue. We've seen a rapidly maturing landscape of new means to the desired enterprise tablet ends in recent years: mobile device management (MDM), containerization and receiver technology flavors, native apps, web-centric apps, recasting virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). It is still quite messy, really, despite the fact that this is a massive global market, the progeny of the PC market of the past 25 years.

Some think that bring your own device (BYOD) will work using these approaches on the user’s choice of tablet. If so, IT will be left supporting a dozen or more mobile client device types and/or versions. You and I know that can’t happen. The list of supported device types needs to be under six, preferably far less, whether it’s BYOD or quasi-BYOD.

Ticking time bomb

Yet enterprises must act. Users are buying and making favorites. Mobility is an imperative. These tablet hardware decisions must be made.

Think of it. You’re an IT leader at a competitive enterprise and rap, rap, rapping on your Windows to get in ASAP are BYOD, mobile apps dev, Android apps, iOS apps, and hybrid-cloud processes.

You have a lot to get done fast amid complex overlaps and interdependencies from your choices that could haunt you — or bless you — for years. And, of course, you have a tight budget as you fight to keep operating costs in check, even as scale requirements keeping rising.

Somewhere in this 3D speed chess match against the future there are actual hardware RFPs. You will be buying client hardware for the still large (if not predominant) portion of the workforce that won’t be candidates for BYOD alone. And a sizable portion of these workers are going to need an enterprise tablet, perhaps for the first time. They want you to give it to them.

This cost-benefit analysis vortex is where I decided to break from my primary focus on enterprise software and data-center infrastructure to consider the implications of the mobile client hardware. My dearly held bias is that the back-end strategy and procurement decisions count more than at any time in the last 12 years.

Better not brick

But at the end of the network hops, there still needs to be a physical object, on which the user will get and put in the work that matters most. This object cannot, under any circumstances, become a weak link in the hard-won ecosystem of services that support, deliver, and gather the critical apps and data. This productivity symphony you are now conducting from amid your legacy, modern data center, and cloud/SaaS services must work on every level — right out to those greasy fingertips on the smart tablet glass.

Yes, the endpoint must be as good as the services stream behind them, yet not hugely better, not a holy shiny object that tends to diminish the rest, not just a pricey status symbol — but a workhorse that can be nurtured and that can adapt as demanded.

So I recently received and evaluated a Levono ThinkPad Tablet 2 running Windows 8 as well as an iPad Air running iOS 7. I wanted to get a sense of what the enterprise decisions will be like as enterprises seek the de facto standard mass-deployed tablet for their post-PC workforce. [Disclosure: Intel sent me, for free, a Lenovo ThinkPad as a trial, and I bought my own iPad Air. I do not do any business with Apple, Lenovo, or Intel.]

Let’s be clear, I’m a long-time Apple user by choice, but still run one instance of Windows 7 on a PC just in case there are Windows-only apps or games I need or want access to. This also keeps up my knowledge on Windows in general.

Good enough is plenty

Here’s what I found. I personally love the iPad Air, but the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 was surprisingly good, certainly good enough for enterprise uses. I will quibble with efficacy of the stylus, that the Google Chrome browser is better on it than Microsoft IE, that the downloads for both are a pain, and that battery life is a weakness on Lenovo — but these are not deal breakers and will almost certainly get better.

What’s key here is that the apps I wanted were easily accessed. There’s a store for that, regardless of the device. Netflix just runs. The cloud services and my data/profile/preferences were all gained quickly and easily. The synching across devices was quickly running. Never having used Windows 8, although familiar with Windows 7, was not an issue. I picked it up quickly, very quickly.

Any long-time Windows user, the predominant enterprises worker, will adapt to an Intel-powered Lenovo device running Windows quite well. And enterprise IT departments already know the strengths and weaknesses of Windows, be it 7 or 8, and they know they will have to pay Microsoft its use taxes for years to come in any event, given their dependence on Microsoft apps, servers, services and middleware.

But that same enterprise tablet user will graft well to an Android device, an iOS device (thanks to market penetration of iPod, iTunes and iPhone), or perhaps a Kindle Fire. Users will have their personal cloud affiliations and the services can be brught to any of these devices and platforms. It can be both a work and a personal device. Or you could easily carry two, especially if the company pays for one of them. As has been stated better elsewhere, these tablets are pretty much the same.

So the nature of the device is not the major factor, not a point of lock-in, or even a decision guide. Because of the single-sign-on APIs from cloud and social media providers, you can now go from tablet to tablet, find your cloud of choice — be it Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, or Amazon. You know how you can just rent bicycles in many cities now and just ride it and drop it off? Same for everyone. This is the future of tablet devices too. Quite soon, actually. Rent it, log in, use it, move on.

Perhaps enterprises should just lease these things?

Enterprises must still choose

Which tablets then will connect back best to the enterprise? Will the business private cloud services be as easily assimilated as the public cloud ones? What of containerization support, isolation and security features, and/or apps receiver technology flavors? Apple’s iOS 7 goes a long way to help enterprises run their own identity and access management (IAM) and isolate apps and run a virtual private connection. Windows 8 has done this all along. Google and Amazon are happy to deliver cloud services just as well. There are the three or four flavors.

After using the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 running Windows 8, it astounds me that Microsoft lost this market and has to claw back from such low penetration in the mobile market. This should have been theirs by any reckoning. Years ago.

Now it’s too late for the device and client platform alone to dictate the market direction. It’s now a function of how the business cloud services can best co-exist with a personal device instance. Because this coexistence will be a must-have capability, it doesn’t really matter what the device is. Any of the top three or four will do.

The ability of the device to best nurture the business and the end-users -- both separate while equal in the same hardware -- that’s the ticket. The rest is standard feature check-offs.

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