Tablets in the Enterprise

Posted by Ross Coundon on October 24, 2012

When Apple first announced the original iPad in January 2010 many analysts queried whether there was a consumer need for a tablet device. Not as powerful as a laptop or desktop, too large to be used as a phone and too expensive to buy purely for browsing the web or reading a book it was seen by many as a commercial disaster waiting to happen. It was asserted that consumers have no need for such a device and, in one sense, they were right.

For over a decade prior to its launch of the iPad Apple had wanted to provide an intuitive, simple to use, wireless device that could be carried everywhere but only in 2010 did Apple decide that the technology had arrived that would make such a thing a viable product.

Where Apple has been particularly insightful over the last few years is in not addressing a market need but instead by creating one. Despite those analyst’s concerns, consumers bought iPads in their thousands and the market for tablet devices was born. Now a number of vendors are looking muscle-in on Apple’s dominance in the tablet market. The two main protagonists being Google with the Android operating system and Microsoft with Windows. (The RIM PlayBook has all but died away)

Enterprises of all shapes and sizes are now looking at how they might use this wave of tablet computing to give them an advantage in the marketplace. Consultancies all over the world are evangelising about the benefits of introducing tablet devices into the enterprise and whilst I agree there are many benefits to be realised, there are a number of potential pitfalls that I’d like to highlight here to help you make your decision about which device/OS to embrace.

As mentioned, there are three principal players in the tablet market and each comes with its own pros and cons. The choice of which tablet OS to deploy will strongly influence the ease of deployment and management.

Apple iPad – iOS

In terms of the sheer availability of tablet optimised applications, the iPad is way out in front of its competitors. The developer community for the iPad is large and growing, due at least in part to favourable statistics on the likelihood of those that use Apple devices to pay for the download of applications which therefore increases revenue for those developers. Many productivity apps exist for the iPad such as the Apple-developed office suite of Keynote, Numbers and Pages; third party developed applications such as Evernote, CloudOn, Mindjet and SlideShark; and with an HTML5 compatible browser device-agnostic applications can also be deployed. If in-house development is required then finding competent iOS skilled developers is a relatively straightforward recruitment task.

This breadth of application availability is a big plus for iOS but the complexity of the deployment and licensing of these applications remains an issue. Apple have gone some way to addressing this issue with the availability of a volume app licence purchase for enterprises but reclaiming these licences when an employee leaves the company can be troublesome.

Securing and controlling an estate of iPad devices should be achieved with the use of a Mobile Device Management (MDM) platform (ideally incorporating Mobile Application Management (MAM) in order to help address the application deployment issue mentioned above). Almost all MDM platforms support the iPad (along with iPhone) by means of a locally installed agent that can be used to initiate remote wipes, data fading, remote install/removal of applications and checks for jail breaks.

Ultimately the greatest appeal about the iPad is ease of use, so by ensuring control of these assets through the use of MDM, a rollout of these devices can be relatively inexpensive since training costs should be small. There are now many large and notable iOS rollouts by blue-chip companies such as SAP and British Airways which shows that iOS really is a viable proposition for the enterprise.

Google – Android

Many variants of the Android platform exist. Numerous form factors, OS versions and manufacturers can make the decision to adopt the platform in the Enterprise a difficult one.

Device costs tend to be lower than that of competitors which helps to reduce cost of deployment but due to the fragmented nature of the Android ecosystem this can be quite easily swallowed up by the additional cost of the process of selecting the right device.

The number of tablet-optimised or tablet-specific apps available for Android is far lower than that of Apple and the pool of Android skilled developer talent is considerably smaller than that for iOS meaning in-house development of native Android apps might prove to be costly.

Due to its open nature, Android lends itself more easily to a corporate app store approach to app development and a number of vendors have built this capability into their MDM/MAM offerings. The security built-in to the platform has progressed considerably over the last few versions and is now well documented and more easily augmented by the use of MDM/MAM solutions, as with iOS.

Microsoft – Windows

Manufacturers have had Microsoft Windows based tablets on the market for a few years now. Some adoption in the Enterprise has occurred but uptake has likely been hampered by the fact that these are devices are, in effect, a laptop PC with a touch-screen instead of a physical keyboard deployed on an operating system (Windows XP/Windows 7) that is not designed to be used in that manner. The key differentiator for Apple and Android tablets is the natural way that a user can interact with it using gestures such as swipe, pinch, drag, rotate; none of which are supported natively in WinXP/7.

The big benefit of Windows, of course, is its ubiquity in the enterprise. A myriad of legacy applications are available for the Windows platform many of which enterprises use every moment of every working day.

Although it is rather late to the party, this is where the introduction of a dedicated Windows tablet could prove disruptive to the tablet market. Firstly Windows 8 is designed to be used on a tablet with a touch-screen. Combine this with the integration of the Windows platform into Active Directory for security, the existence of all those Windows applications that we almost all use every day – Powerpoint, Word, Excel etc. With the assumption of backwards compatibility of 3rd party applications, the availability of a huge pool of developer talent and the familiarity of IT departments with the deployments of Windows devices Windows 8 could become a serious option in the Enterprise. Where Apple and Google have focussed on the consumer market first, I believe Microsoft’s best chance of gaining traction is to focus on the Enterprise.

The use of tablet devices within the enterprise will continue to grow, of that there’s no doubt. Making the right choice of tablet device or OS isn’t as clear cut as one would like but by making an informed choice there are benefits to be realised. I hope this commentary helps to identify the areas for you to consider when making your decision.

Ross Coundon

Ross has many years experience in providing mobile workforce management advice and solutions to a wide range of industries, and as a result, he is ideally placed to support field service organisations in their transformation initiatives. Having worked with the likes of Vodafone, Scottish Water and the Environment Agency, Ross has particular expertise in the use of mobile technologies to improve field service operations.