Regular readers will know that I strongly believe the mobile enterprise is the future, and I believe tablets could become the primary work computing device. It’s not there yet, but it certainly looks like ultra-mobile devices in the 7- to 12-inch range are becoming very popular among an increasingly mobile and BYOD-enabled workforce.

The Challenges To Tablet Adoption

It’s clear why smartphone usage took off in the enterprise: staff replaced their private feature phones with smartphones, saw the benefits of having a richly-featured ultra-mobile device and started to use them (regardless of corporate policy in many cases). This demand led to increased adoption of BYOD policies to the point that it’s hardly unusual to see business users with access to core enterprise systems on their private phones.

However, there is less of a “killer app” in the case of tablets. They have been variously seen as “big phones” or pure media consumption devices but rarely as a replacement for a traditional PC or laptop. Leaving aside questions of corporate policy (let’s just assume that the business does not object to users having tablets) they have still faced a range of challenges, all of which can now be addressed.

Office software has been seen as a reason not to use tablets, as access to a full-featured suite is extremely useful in business. Software such as QuickOffice or Keynote for iPad retain a lot of the functionality of their desktop counterparts, using them for serious document creation tasks would represent a far greater investment of time and effort.

The whole point of adopting a new device is that it will make work easier. This becomes even worse when you consider trying to work in an ERP or similar major enterprise system using a typical touch interface. However through integration and application platforms it is possible to create mobile applications that recreate users’ workflows, providing an intuitive path through and between enterprise applications, keeping all the functionality but reducing complexity.

The reduced choice of input methods on tablets has been a concern in the business world, which has traditionally run on mouse-and-keyboard input. Of course, the real challenge is not that business users are unable to use touch input but rather that doing serious work in enterprise applications with their cluttered screens and tiny controls would be infuriating. Mobile application platforms are the answer again, since building a workflow-based application with screens that are designed for touch greatly reduces these issues.

Data security has always been a concern with portable devices, since any data stored on the device is compromised if it is lost. This was already a concern when a portable device meant a 15” laptop in a dedicated carrying case, so the extreme mobility of tablets and their reduced size logically implied that they would be lost more easily.

Fortunately, modern Mobile Device Management (MDM) solutions allow for access to sensitive corporate data to be controlled, for example ensuring that no data resides on the device, or removing applications remotely if the device leaves a set area (geofence) or is reported lost.

Portable Versus Mobile

While tablets haven’t replaced the traditional laptop in the enterprise yet, they are increasingly being used as an ultra-mobile companion device. However I think this is merely one point in the evolution of enterprise IT: business users remain unwilling to completely rid themselves of the old laptop because there remain some tasks that are easier to complete on it, and we are still in the early days of the mobile application platforms.

I predict that for the near future the enterprise laptop will be much like the home PC: still useful for some tasks, and indeed vital for users who need greater processing power, but it will gradually become less central as newer more helpful devices gain widespread adoption and support.

I’m not sure that this is really about tablets as a category of devices, though. Computing capability is central to the enterprise, and what matters is that we have access to the functionality we need, when we need it: the devices just fall on a single spectrum.

At one end of the spectrum is a high functionality device with low mobility: the traditional laptop which aims to reproduce the desktop PC’s capability but with some portability, even if it does require near-constant power and Wi-Fi connectivity.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the smartphone, which is extremely mobile but which has reduced capability due to its small screen and limited expansion options. It is telling that a year ago I would have added “…and less powerful processor” to the smartphone’s shortcomings, but already we are seeing some genuinely powerful devices.

Business On The Beach

The question is becoming one of what tradeoffs users are willing to make: would they prefer to use multiple devices that are each perfect for a certain situation, perhaps synced via cloud so that work done on one is instantly available on the others? Or a single device that can adapt to be “good enough” everywhere, thus reducing complexity?

I personally use a Sony VAIO Duo hybrid laptop/tablet which I find excellent, as it behaves like a tablet when I need it mobile, but at the desk I can connect my mouse, keyboard and external display and it’s no different to a traditional laptop.

With the ability to provide access to enterprise systems with full functionality via mobile apps, even when offline, a key barrier to the adoption of tablets has been removed. There may not be a single killer app for tablets in the enterprise, but we know what we want to achieve and it’s all about finding the device that best fits that.