When Apple CEO Steve Jobs formally introduced the iPad in January of this year, he had mostly the consumer market in mind for his much anticipated new product. Nonetheless, the iPad, and similar consumer-focused devices such as the iPhone and Android-based smartphones are increasingly being used for work-related duties.
"The iPhone has hands-down captured the imagination not only of the consumer but of the corporate user," said Clint Oram, chief technology officer and cofounder of customer relationship management software vendor SugarCRM. Going into 2011, vendors of enterprise software are finding that consumer devices represent an opportunity to expand their reach.
For enterprise software vendors, the idea of developing client software for mobile handsets is not new. But developing for consumer devices, as opposed to devices made specifically for the enterprise market, is a new aspect to their development strategies.
"Enterprise vendors are recognizing more and more that devices don't matter when you're accessing an application," said Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of IT analyst firm Nucleus Research. "If I'm out in the field, I should be able to access information to do my job."
In a survey of 1,100 of its enterprise customers, mobile connectivity management provider iPass found that 13 percent already have iPads in use -- mainly brought in by employees -- and 27 percent expect iPads and similar devices to replace the laptop as their primary computing device.
Another poll of 1,600 IT buyers, by ChangeWave Research, found that 14 percent of companies plan to buy employees some form of tablet for work. And, at least initially, organizations seem to be eschewing the typical enterprise-targeted devices from Hewlett-Packard and Research in Motion in favor of devices made for the consumer market, notably the iPad.
Enterprise software companies are heeding the call. IBM developed a client for its Maximo workflow software for the iPhone, allowing repairmen the ability to update their status directly from the shop floor. Sybase released a software package, called Afaria, to help system administrators maintain better control over iPhones and iPads within their domain.
The use of more consumer devices in the workplace represents a sea-change in enterprise IT in general, noted Harry Labana, chief technology officer for Citrix. "IT has been of the mindset of predicting what the user wants, but that fundamental handshake between employer and employee has shifted," he said.
"The new workforce is more goal-oriented. They know they have to get something done, so they are far more knowledgeably equipped to pick the tools they need," he said.
What is the advantage of using a consumer device? One is superior usability. A lot of thought has been put into making consumer devices as easy to use as possible. As a result, such devices can make employers more efficient, Labana said.
"If you can make a doctor or lawyer five percent more productive, well, that's a big payback, financially," said Chris Fleck, Citrix vice president of community and solutions development.
Usage of these devices varies from workplace to workplace. In many cases, it is the organization's executives who first get the iPad or Android phone for themselves and ask the IT staff to support it, notes Fleck.
In other cases, the devices are used to make life easier for the mobile employees. The SugarCRM app, for instance, is used mostly by mobile workers to fetch client contact information such as phone numbers, addresses or e-mails from the CRM app back at the office, Oram said.
Citrix has thus far had a million downloads of its Receiver client, available for the iPhone, iPad and the Android. The Receiver software allows users to access their desktop computers, both the applications and the data, although it requires Citrix server software to virtualize the desktop. The client makes life easier for administrators because they don't have to worry about supporting multiple mobile platforms, Fleck said.
Of course, developing for consumer devices can pose additional challenges for enterprise software companies, particularly if they wish to work with Apple, which controls which applications can be deployed on its devices.
"Apple has some room for improvement," in getting more enterprise applications for the devices, Oram said. "The deployment process is a little challenging if you are thinking about a one-off customized application."
Application vendors should also try to take advantage of some of the native capabilities of these devices, added Wettemann. For instance, smartphones and tablets have geo-location capabilities that can pinpoint the user's location. Such a feature could be harnessed in enterprise applications as well.
Despite these limitations, it is clear that many of tomorrow's consumer-oriented devices will find a place in the workforce as well.
The devices such as iPads "really have transformed into business tools," Fleck said. "They are allowing a lot of people to leave their laptops at home."