Tablets in the enterprise: Pros and cons

The enterprise is the next big frontier for tablets, but these issues must be addressed to make it happen.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

It's safe to say that tablets are here to stay, something not clear when the original iPad hit the streets. Analysts are mostly in agreement that tablet sales will keep growing, with Apple and Android leading the way. With Windows 8 and its tablet focus coming up soon, eyes are turning toward the enterprise for the next big tablet market.

That may happen, but there are some clear issues that the enterprise will have to deal with to welcome the tablet into the workplace with open arms.

Tablets in the enterprise: The pros

No moving parts. The one tablet feature that IT staff of major enterprises tell me most excites them is the lack of moving parts onboard. Tablets have no moving hard drives, no hinges or latches that can be broken when used. They are one piece devices that are fairly durable compared to current options currently used.

I am told by the IT folks that if a computer, laptop or desktop, has a mechanical part that must be used daily, a fair number of the devices will fail in the field. Whether it be the laptop screen hinge that stops opening or closing properly, or the hard drive that refuses to spin anymore, a certain percentage of them will fail.

This is a problem with large enterprises that deploy tens of thousands of computing devices to employees. If even a tiny percentage of the devices have mechanical failures, it is a big problem for corporate IT departments to deal with.

Low cost. Corporate folks looking into major deployment of tablets over laptops/ desktops are excited about the low cost per unit of the tablet. They expect volume purchases to bring the cost per unit down far below that of conventional devices, and that can be a big thing to big companies.

Easier to lock down functionality. Major enterprises are big on restricting what employees can do with company computers during the day, and most of them lock down deployed systems. They restrict the things employees can do with them, especially online, and I'm told they expect tablets to make that even easier.

The IT folks I have spoken to about tablet deployments believe they would do so with some sort of restrictive kiosk environment in place. This would present a narrow set of capabilities for employees to do what they need to do online and nothing more.

Keyboards not really needed. The tablet is missing something all other computers in current use has, the keyboard. While that eliminates the tablet as a viable choice for employees who input a lot of data such as reports, many employees don't really need a physical keyboard.

Tasks that require a small amount of input can be done just as easily using onscreen keyboards of the tablet. While most employees would likely prefer the real keyboard due to familiarity, with a little practice the virtual keyboard is just as good for the amount of input most employees do regularly.

Tablets are consumption devices. We hear this all the time about tablets, and it is largely true. The fact is, the vast majority of employees at major corporations spend most of their time looking up information, not creating it. That is the very definition of consuming information, and tablets are a very good way to do that.

The tablet will never be appropriate for those employees who create a lot of content, be that reports or spreadsheets, but in reality how many of the tens of thousands of employees of major companies do that? I'm guessing far fewer than you might think.

Tablets at work: The cons

Employee resistance. People don't like change, and replacing the desktop/laptop with a tablet will be a big one. Losing the keyboard will be the biggest change that employees resist, and companies will have to find a way to deal with that.

Physical security. Corporations have big concerns about security of the computers deployed, and while tablets should pose no bigger threat than current devices the same isn't true about physical security. Desktop systems in the workplace are fairly safe due to the difficulty to steal them, but tablets are a different matter.

One company I spoke with spends a lot of effort keeping laptops deployed physically secure, including a policy requiring them to be locked down in the office with physical constraints. Theft of corporate laptops outside the workplace is a big concern, and something that happens far too often.

Tablets are even easier to steal than laptops, and that has the IT people really worried. How to secure them in the workplace is a hot topic, and keeping them safe outside the workplace keeps some IT folks up at night. This is a genuine concern when mass deployments of tablets start taking place, and one that will have to be dealt with.

One company I visited recently is already using Windows tablets in certain areas, and while it works well for the intended purpose it's not without security concerns. The tablets are physically attached to the desk, and must be used accordingly. It's not the best method, but necessary to keep them from walking away.

Proprietary software conversion costs. Many big companies use proprietary software to keep their operations running smoothly, and most of that is based on Windows. Switching lots of employees to mobile platforms will come at a cost to convert these proprietary systems. This is an area Windows 8 tablets will have a distinct advantage over Android and the iPad, as it should be easier/cheaper to convert existing systems over to the Windows-based tablets.

Tablets in the workplace are coming

The pros and cons of deploying tablets in the workplace will play a big role in how fast such deployments take place. The enterprise must deal with the described issues to make wide-scale deployments, and this will not happen quickly. The benefits of replacing conventional computers with tablets outweigh the downside, and I expect we will see such deployments ramp up next year.

Related: Seven ‘must have’ productivity apps for the iPad | Apple’s next-gen iPad: New battlefields emerge | Microsoft’s business pitch for Windows 8 depends on tablets | Apple’s New iPad In The Enterprise: Laptop Replacement Gets Closer | The new iPad’s great but what’s wrong with a good, inexpensive Android tablet? | CNET: New iPad hands on | CNET: All CNET iPad coverage (roundup) |iPad HD will surpass laptops on key features

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