In my TechRepublic IT Leadership column I recently wrote about technical solutions looking for a problem. In some of the responses to my tablet-related TechRepublic articles readers have wondered aloud whether tablets are in the same vein: a technical solution to a non-existent problem.
This is an interesting and legitimate question, and while tablet hardware is fairly inexpensive, a large-scale deployment and the associated support and maintenance costs are not insignificant. Accounting for the obvious bias of a writer who writes weekly columns about the wonders of tablets, I'll offer an answer of "yes" to the question of whether tablets are relevant. Here's why.
Fast and light
Two of the most innovative features of the current crop of tablets are conceptually the most mundane: fast boot times and exceptional portability. In an age when full-blown laptop computers can boot in 12 seconds or less and weigh around 3 lbs, an instantly-accessible device that shaves 12 ounces seems less than exciting, and one wonders how much these seeming trivialities matter. Instant accessibility and portability make one far more likely to use the device for rapid access to "glanceable" information.
The BlackBerry and other smartphones revolutionized the mundane old application of email by making it universally available and accessible, rather than booting up a larger device and the associated applications. I believe tablets will perform a similar feat for a larger pool of information and applications that might range from rapidly accessible and instantly updated dashboard-style management reports, to knowledge sharing and collaboration tools that have suffered by being chained to laptops.
Since the dawn of computing we've seen technologies that promised to accelerate and enable that corporate stalwart: the meeting. While tools like SharePoint have brought some of this vision to life, I've always found laptops to hinder collaborative work, since they create an instant barrier to personal interaction the moment the screen is raised. In most companies, the detailed creative work takes place in person, over a whiteboard or via a conference call, and the technical tools are updated after the fact. Tablets, on the other hand, can be passed around, poked, and prodded; they facilitate human interaction rather than hinder it, and capture ideas in real time. While technology will never replace skills like meeting management and delegation, tablets can finally provide what every good technology should: an accelerant to an already successful human process.
While the TechRepublic community may balk at replacing a "loaded" desktop or laptop with a low-end tablet computer, the majority of workers in most companies use little beyond email, web browsing, and perhaps a handful of enterprise applications. As these workers migrate toward web-based front ends and the major players expand their tablet offerings, issuing and maintaining pools of traditional laptops makes less sense. With fewer moving parts and near-ubiquitous commercial availability, you could almost "outsource" your hardware maintenance to the local big-box electronics store, allowing remote employees to swap a defective unit that's then remotely provisioned just like a BlackBerry or other smartphone. I'm very excited that the lines between consumer and enterprise hardware, at least at the end user level, are blurring. Tracking, repairing, and managing a huge pool of computers seems more of a distraction than a valuable function for the modern IT shop, and tablets move us just a bit further away from this function.
Gauge tablets' relevance to your organization
Speculation is certainly a low-risk art, and I completely understand IT leaders regarding any new technology with a dose of healthy skepticism. Most CIOs are regularly faced with all manner of challenges, and the IT press spouting off about the wonders of tablets may seem like yet another burden rather than helpful commentary.
That said, while it's too early for most organizations to rush headlong into a widespread tablet deployment, there's little excuse not to be conducting at least an informal test in this area and gauging the relevance to your organization. Get a bit creative here, and perhaps allow a couple of junior developers to experiment with connecting their personal tablets to corporate systems, and presenting their findings to IT leadership as a low-cost way to dip your toe into the tablet waters. While a wait and see attitude is appropriate at this point, simply ignoring tablet technology is inexcusable.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.