Apple iPad: Revolution or just the right tool at the right time?

Tablets and smartphones offer real opportunities for business progress…

Some see the consumerisation of IT purely in terms of the headaches it gives CIOs. They're missing the point, says Nick Kirkland.

Matt Ridley, in his book The Rational Optimist, argues it is not the invention of technology, but its democratisation that causes change. Or more generally, that when commerce happens, it's not just products and money that are exchanged, but also the ideas embedded in those products.

We've seen it before, but it's never been as quick or far-reaching as what's going on at the moment. With the launch of devices such as smartphones and tablets, not only has the technology changed, but also the way people use it and the way they think of software and consume media.

In some quarters these changes are being hailed as a revolution, in which people are exploiting this shiny new technology to merge their business and personal lives, while demanding that their employers grant them free rein on the devices they use for business - whether it be phone, laptop or tablet.

iPad on the tube

People are exploiting shiny new technology such as the Apple iPad to merge their business and personal livesPhoto: Annie Mole

Unstoppable tide of IT consumerisation

This argument tends to revolve around the idea of the consumerisation of IT, which is often presented as a headache for the CIO, who is powerless in the face of this inevitable tide.

Yet while there is some truth in this idea, I think to a certain extent it misunderstands the true nature of the evolution in technology use. By focusing on the challenges for CIOs, this view of the world fails to highlight the real opportunities for progress.

In fact, I can think of few organisations that don't already have some sort of consumer devices in their IT environment. Ease of use and relatively low price points mean many people match devices to the various requirements of their jobs.

So, for example, a salesman or even a senior executive may use an iPad when they need something portable and flexible, either to present to clients or perhaps for note-taking - essentially to behave like paper. Meanwhile, they'll still use their computer for more data-intensive tasks and probably have a smartphone as well. This horses-for-courses approach is central to what is meant by democratisation.

Comparing tablets with laptops

The technically-minded will tend to see inefficiency in this approach, often comparing new technologies with existing ones that, in their view, do much the same job and more - for example, comparing tablets with laptops. But this misses the point.

In her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein argues that a new technology often mimics something existing and actually performs worse on many counts. Crucially, however, it usually performs at least one task better and this is what leads to its adoption.

So, returning to the example of the laptop versus the tablet, there are many instances in which a laptop technically outperforms a tablet, but a tablet is simply more physically versatile, despite its other limitations.

For the CIO, understanding how and why people in their organisation use technology is valuable. Of those I have spoken to recently, a major gripe is that they can deliver almost 100 per cent of what people say they want on a corporate system and yet employees still hate it.

Conversely, deliver only 75 per cent on an iPad and people are strangely delighted. The fact is that choosing their own technology makes people feel in control.

Inevitable security concerns

However, anything that puts the end user in control, and takes control away from the CIO, inevitably raises security concerns. Many, though, have already found ways to deal with this issue.

Colt, one of our members, gets around the problem by virtualising its desktops and putting an app on devices to link securely to the corporate network. Similarly, there are now ways to limit the damage of stolen devices, such as remote device-wipe technology.

Security concerns remain but must be updated to reflect the changing landscape. So whereas at one time security was largely perimeter-based, now the focus should be on transactions.

Other concerns, such as robustness and particularly longevity, are beginning to disappear as cheaper devices that do not necessarily need to be specified for constant use become more common.

The main concern for the CIO should now be whether the tool in use is the right tool for the job.

Nick Kirkland is CEO at CIO Connect, whose members represent a significant proportion of the FTSE 350, the private and public sectors, and overseas organisations. Its goal is the development of senior IT leaders and their teams. Kirkland is an experienced CIO, having served on the board of Penguin Books as information services director and as head of IT for Sony in the UK. He was also a group vice president at analyst firm Gartner.