Tablets have a nice form factor and are obviously tearing up the consumer space, but a common complaint is that they have little applicability to the enterprise. There’s a long list of reasons why tablets are troublesome from a logistical perspective, including security, manageability, and provisioning — but one reason stands out above the rest: there aren’t a ton of compelling enterprise applications. Or are there?

Last week, Jack Wallen wrote about professions that would be benefit from tablet technology. Now, I’d like to focus on the enterprise. While a tablet may not light your world afire, consider the following enterprise-grade uses as you adopt tablets for a large-scale deployment or even a more limited trial.

Field service

Tablets seem like a compelling solution for personnel who spend most of their time in the field. They could replace printed documentation and provide your field people with simple and low-maintenance access to e-mail and basic corporate applications. A tablet could act as anything from an easily-updated library of technical manuals, order entry portal, signature capture tool, to a mapping and tracking system. At about half to a third of the cost of current “rugged” tablets, these devices could almost be considered disposable.

Executive/knowledge worker companion

Tablets are a surprisingly effective tool in meetings. There’s easy access to your calendar and e-mail, and you can view and share most standard Microsoft Office documents quickly. Tablets don’t create the “wall” of an open laptop when sharing or note taking, and they also have the benefit of a full day’s battery.

Many organizations already have web-based portals with dashboards and key monitoring applications. If you put these on a tablet, they can easily be monitored by mobile executives, many of whom might even be able to make due with a tablet since their assistants are already doing the “heavy lifting” on their full-fledged computers.

Convenience, not necessarily greenness

A tablet is a great way of replacing reams of documentation, from training and technical manuals to video-based product demonstrations and fast-changing information like prices and customer lists. Many companies already publish this sort of information online in some manner, so adapting it to tablet consumption might be as simple as providing an optimized web site or tablet-accessible storage. However, do be wary of pitching any tablet introduction as a “green” solution. I’m no expert in what makes up a modern tablet, but they do include noxious materials and energy-intensive manufacturing techniques that are probably not particularly green.

Conferencing and collaboration

One of my favorite tablet uses is video conferencing. While I’d like to say I’m facilitating important discussions and client interactions, my primary use is to see my 2-year-old and wife while traveling. This may stretch the boundaries of “enterprise use,” but I’ve found tools like Skype on tablets more effective, easier to use, and obviously cheaper than the “enterprise” alternatives. I’ve worked with clients who have deployed fairly unwieldy computer-based communications tools at a per-seat cost that nears the price of a tablet when one considers the required support infrastructure. Tablet-based video sharing just might be a quick and dirty way to deploy easy video conferencing to your far-flung employees.

The “third screen”

Netbooks, and now tablets, have been heralded as a “third screen.” This is marketing speak for what manufactures hope you’ll adopt as a potential third computing device, after your desktop and laptop. It may seem like a bit of marketing hooey, but tablets can serve anywhere you need a cheap, connected, interactive screen. Think of every kiosk application you may have been asked to create or support, and the struggles with niche hardware, managing a “heavy” OS on a single-purpose device, and concerns about whether any custom tools or hardware will exist in the future.

Tablets give you an easy solution, and if you design your “third screen” applications using web-based tools, you’ve effectively future-proofed the application. With light operating systems and minimal services running on them, your tablet could presumably sit for years, running your kiosk application with nary a firmware update or OS patch. You could even create a “loaner pool” of tablets to deploy at trade shows and sales calls, with interactive kiosk applications and product catalogs.

Learn your market

If you’re in a consumer-facing business, at this juncture, there’s no question that a significant number of your customers are buying and using tablets. Even if none of the above reasons provide any immediate value to your organization, there’s a compelling case to be made that part of understanding your customers is understanding the tools and technologies they’re using. As technology permeates our lives, companies that ignore consumer-driven trends are effectively ignoring a significant development in their customer’s lives, and they risk alienating those very customers.

While there’s still a valid complaint that there’s no “must-have” application for tablets in the enterprise, there are several applications that are very compelling. Shift your mindset from trying to replace existing laptops and desktops to augmenting their functionality and delivering a better experience in your company to field personnel, executives, and highly-mobile knowledge workers.