Ready to take the tablets?

By Martin Courtney
19 Apr 2011 View Comments
Tablet PC that says 'Please support me'

There is no doubt that Apple’s much-vaunted iPad is boosting sales of tablet PCs and other mobile broadband-enabled devices. What is not clear is the extent to which those devices are finding their way into office environments, or being sanctioned for use on corporate networks by enterprise IT departments.

Analyst Forrester estimates that there will be 59 million tablet PCs in the hands of US consumers alone by 2015, with 43 per cent of firms in the US and Europe having told Forrester they are “interested” in tablet PCs.

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The research company believes the iPad will steadily displace the laptop in the workplace, as employees look to use their own personal devices when working out of the office, either on the road or from home. Its versatility also allows it to be used in place of a paper clipboard – albeit one far more expensive to replace in the event of loss of breakage.

“It is definitely a trend, albeit still quite small – it is not happening as quickly as vendors would like you to think,” says Pauline Trotter, principal analyst in the enterprise telecoms team at research firm Ovum. “More so in the US than Europe though, because the Americans have more of a model where users buy their own mobile devices and airtime and claim it back as expenses from the company, whereas the EU model is to provide employees with a business phone they use for work.”

Corporate buyers may be put off buying tablet PCs in volume by cost barriers – most devices are significantly more expensive than laptops, which offer similar or better hardware specifications – though arguably less versatility – and run standard Windows operating systems that are less likely to require customised applications to gain access to existing corporate systems.

But Forrester analyst Ted Schadler says that cost of deployment can be partially offset by “swapping out” upgrades to existing laptops, especially if the employee also wants a basic desktop PC to work on at home between sales or field visits. In this scenario, he explains, the cost of the desktop PC and iPad combined could be less than the cost of a high-end notebook, which the employer would be expected to buy.

Schadler also argues that using tablets as document readers or presentation devices can save on the costs of hard printing, particularly as organisations often have to destroy large volumes of printed marketing and sales materials. And in retail, using tablets to take customer orders can result in productivity gains that should more than make up for the cost of the device over its lifetime.

Despite these supposed advantages, in many cases iPads are being brought into business environments simply because firms want to be seen giving their executives the latest “cool” technology.

“Companies are buying them where they need them, particularly for directors and customer-facing roles such as marketing and sales where they want to project a good impression of the company,” says Ovum’s Trotter.

Certainly, large-scale rollouts of iPads or any other brand of tablet by big UK corporates are difficult to cite – though there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that companies buy a few dozen at a time for their sales staff.

The one exception, software giant SAP, told Computing last year that it expected to have deployed 17,000 iPads to its staff by the autumn of 2011 (almost equalling its BlackBerry smartphone rollout), with 1,500 already given to its sales and marketing staff, each loaded with email client, virtual private network, Citrix remote access software and SAP’s own BusinessObjects business intelligence software (Apple is also an SAP customer).

Elsewhere, international hotel chains Best Western and Mövenpick have given iPads to reception staff, and the British Army has deployed the iPad on a limited basis at its training centres where, for example, members of the Royal Horse Artillery are using the devices to learn how to call in fire support for troops.

Insurance giant Lloyd’s of London has piloted iPads with 30 brokers in its underwriting room, using the device as an “electronic slip case” that enables people to display documents to clients electronically and review and annotate them on screen when required, essentially replacing paper with something easier to carry.

At the time of writing, a Lloyd’s spokesperson said the trial was ongoing and they could not comment on whether or not the firm had decided to roll out the device to the wider organisation.

Even the Houses of Parliament is backing the use of tablet PCs and smartphones in both the Lords and the Commons, allowing members to use the devices during debates and in the Grand Committee Room to find parliamentary papers and supporting documents.

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