Many IT professionals are wondering how tablets are going to affect the enterprise. We’re all trying to work out if, when, and how these devices are going to impact our work. However, I’m not sure we’re asking the right questions about these devices.

Patrick Gray recently argued that Google needs to more tightly control Android for tablet success. His article spent a lot of time talking about embedded Android on appliance-type devices and then veered back in the direction of tablets at the end. The case seemed inconclusive to me. Perhaps customized, purpose-driven appliances and tablets are the best answer.

I think his lack of a definite conclusion reflects the entire industry. We’re all over the place trying to figuring out how to leverage mobile platforms. We’re looking desperately for a use model, and the best I’ve been able to come up with for professional use, I tend to think of as “administrative.” We’re afraid if we don’t innovate and implement this exciting new technology, our competitors will — but don’t worry, they’re as uncertain about how to proceed as we are.

Tablets aren’t really new. They’re big PDAs. We do calendaring, note taking, alarms, and notifications on tablets — but so could a PDA, all the way back to the Newton. We’ve been using this kind of touch-based organizer for over a decade at the executive level. They’re coming into their own stride, but we still struggle with leveraging them for productivity.

Apple uses iPads as POS devices in their stores, which is amazing and revolutionary. However, stores were using PDAs with CF barcode scanners and Wi-Fi connections years ago. UPS and FedEx delivery use this kind of technology daily. They’re not trading in their sturdy PDAs for modern tablets. The major excitement about tablets is that they’ve broken through to consumer interest, while PDAs had little consumer use.

For the enterprise, I see two major tablet applications:

  • Better mobile connectivity than PDAs. In particular, tablets are able to give a more feature-rich browsing experience and reasonable email communication. They also tend to work better with web apps like OWA than previous mobile devices.
  • Ability to design and deploy custom native apps.

This advantage remains impractical for the resources available to most SMBs, but large enterprises probably have deep enough pockets to deploy these kind of native OS and web-based app solutions.

The trouble seems to be one of convergence and transition. We’re transitioning from a desktop OS, application-based, business productivity environment — Office, Outlook, PowerPoint, and local applications running on a traditional PC. We use server-based back office, HR, and business processes platforms. Those are behind on developing meaningful mobile options, and they don’t yet rival traditional desktop PC methods in features and convenience. The value add of having a mobile device is offset by the limitations, where it’s an option.

Another driver is the convergence of cloud technologies and mobile devices. Public clouds make enterprises nervous, private clouds lose a lot of the supposed benefits of public clouds, and IT seems reluctant about adopting any cloud. But mobile devices are cloud pods. They’re lightweight devices designed to buzz around the cloud — gathering, creating, sharing, or moving information. Storing my private music and movies on the cloud is one thing, and storing my critical corporate IP there is another.

Google Now illustrates that we need to start rethinking how these devices add value to our enterprise. The personal digital assistant part of the PDA is becoming a reality with Now and Siri, but we’re asked to place a lot of trust in allowing a cloud to collect meaningful information about us. Without that, we can’t reap the benefits of these solutions.

This whole idea that the iPad is winning in the enterprise doesn’t hold water in my experience. Like all of these devices, organizations are trying to shoehorn them into a productivity role with limited success. They tend to be cheaper and offer more power than PDAs just a decade ago, so they have more reach. They’re not just executive toys. The iPad was first, so it has the highest profile. However, my co-worker’s wife is a home care nurse, and she was assigned a Samsung Galaxy Tab by her employer.

The enterprise challenge is that these mobile consumer devices take away the granular control of a PC. In the example above, access to email and medical apps are ideally all the nurses would have. With traditional Windows, this was easily achieved by IT — but that’s not the case with Android or iOS.

An argument could be made against tighter control by Google. In fact, any Android tablet manufacturer could easily custom-skin Android for enterprise applications, creating one-off versions of Android designed to give access to a custom app, corporate email, and maybe a limited web browser — no Doodle Jump, Words with Friends, developer mode, or side-loading. The open customization of Android is an advantage in the long run.

Ultimately, things are still sorting themselves out for tablets in the enterprise. It’s still very difficult to see where these technologies might take us.

What are your thoughts about tablets in the enterprise? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.