Cell phones have been around for a while, and many companies have already figured out their justification and distribution mechanisms for employees. However, a couple of years ago, a new "magical" problem reared its head; Steve Jobs released the iPad, which started a new wave of usable, reasonably-priced slate form-factor tablets that throw out the rules of the PC in favor of a streamlined, mobile user experience.
In this article, I'll take a look at some of the risks and rewards that organizations must consider as tablets begin to creep into the various nooks and crannies of the company.
Con: New costs
I don't think it's a stretch to say that mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets have a shorter life cycle than traditional desktops and laptops. New product announcements, more fragility, and (depending on the OS) shorter OS life cycle support mean that people will turn over their mobile devices more often than they have had to do so with their other devices. This is exacerbated by that fact that some organizations have saved money by extending their desktop and laptop refresh cycles.
A shorter life span will add new costs that need to be figured into the bottom line.
Con: New support needs
On top of the direct costs that are introduced with new devices come the indirect support costs that must be borne in able to operate them. These costs come in the form of new support needs, applications, and other items, such as systems to manage device proliferation to ensure a consistent user experience and enable a scalable support model.
Some of the additional burden can be mitigated through the implementation of reasonable device policies. For example, at one place I worked, I used the governance process to institute a policy that indicated that IT would support only devices that provided ActiveSync capability. While this still left us with a variety of devices to support, we could at least target the connectivity only, and we didn't end up supporting devices that didn't include what should be basic functionality.
Con: Data security
I've written previously about some security risks that are introduced with smartphones in an organization. These risks generally extend to tablets as well. As users begin to move data to more uncontrolled devices that lack encryption standards, there's an increased risk of an adverse data event (read: data breach) occurring. Organizations can take some steps to protect themselves by instituting systems that require data on devices to be encrypted. Partitions can also help separate "work" data from personal information on a device.
Pro or con: Varied models (both good and bad)
If you've looked at anything coming out of CES, you know that the tablet market, burgeoning already, is about to explode and leave massively differentiated products all over the place. This can be either good or bad, depending on your perspective. From the view of the person that says, "I need to accomplish task X," it might be a good problem, as there are more options from which to choose and a higher likelihood that at least one of the options will contain a solution. From the perspective of the support pro, more variety means additional workload and support needs.
Con: Fractured tablet OS
You might see the fracturing of the OS similar to having a variety of models to choose from. However, when it comes to OS differentiation, I believe that there's enough of that, with three significant mobile OS options: Android, iOS, and Windows Phone 7. Yes, there are others, but these are the three that garner the most attention.
What I mean by "fractured" in this context is that there are more and more versions of Android "in the wild" every day, with many devices never receiving updates; these devices are effectively orphaned. It looks like Microsoft is going to head in this direction as well, by making carriers responsible for requesting updates to the underlying OS rather than the user base. Somehow, I can't see carriers exactly chomping at the bit to get updates out quickly. That said, Windows Phone 7 isn't yet available for the tablet form factors anyway.
So far, Apple has done the best job in keeping their mobile OS relatively simple. Many current devices can run the latest version of iOS, but some new features may not work if the device can't support them.
From a developer standpoint, I can see a whole lot of frustration in attempting to support an app across a fractured ecosystem. This translates to an additional burden for IT departments that support these devices as well.
Pro: New support and outreach opportunities
Though many customers complain that support at some companies is really bad, it's actually really good at others. I believe that the addition of tablets to the support professional's arsenal can actually have a positive impact on the resulting customer engagement experience, as the support pro is able to take the tablet to more places than possible with a traditional laptop, and tablets generally have better battery life.
While I don't believe it's a silver bullet, this is an area where companies should experiment with the possibilities to see if the customer support experience can be improved.
Pro: A truly mobile office
A laptop is great yet bulky for many people who want to accomplish simple goals while on the road. A tablet is the perfect form factor for very lightweight document editing and fantastic for content consumption, presentations, email, Skype, other communications, and more. You might even see higher productivity from employees who are granted tablets, as they are able to stay engaged from more places more of the time.
I've presented just a few pros and cons. There are many more that are dependent on the needs of individual organizations. Regardless of your direction, though, strict control mechanisms are required to ensure that tablets are provided to the right people for the right business reasons.
Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at email@example.com.