Ready or not, here come the business tablets

It's not just iPads

RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook tablet.

RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook tablet.

OK, we all know that people want to bring their consumer technology into the office . In particular, though, people really want to use tablets in the workplace.

And they have a lot of iPads . Deutsche Bank analyst Chris Whitmore recently observed that Apple sold 6.5 million iPads during the fourth quarter of 2010, more than anyone expected. Whitmore expects Apple to sell 28 million iPads in 2011. You didn't need an analyst to tell you about the iPad's success, though. Whether you love Steve Jobs or have a picture of him on your dartboard, you know iPads were instantly, insanely popular.

It's not just iPads, though. At CES , everyone and his OEM announced tablets, including the BlackBerry PlayBook from RIM , numerous Android tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 , HP's webOS tablets and even some Windows tablets. But, while everyone might want a tablet, or maybe two if they're small, will these mobile devices find a home in business?

The intent is there for business use. Almost 30% of iPad users say they now use their iPad as their primary computer , and one survey has shown that over half of would-be users plan to "use a new tablet device like the iPad to conduct work ." But will they really use tablets for work? And, if they do, how can IT manage all those devices?

Well, some companies have had tablets integrated into their IT infrastructure for years. Windows tablets, from companies like Fujitsu, Panasonic and Intermec, have been used in vertical markets for almost two decades. The reason most of you have never heard of them is that, as the experts at Pen Computing put it, "The Tablet PC never really caught on, in part due to technological issues and in part due to Microsoft's inconsistent attention to the platform ."

Things have changed. Thanks to the iPad (and arguably Apple's ability to make any technology seem cool and trend-setting), tablets and touch are no longer just for vertical markets such as healthcare, point-of-sale, field service and logistics. Now, users want them for everyday Internet and office use.

What's making this happen? Brian Proffitt, well-known technology expert and author of Take Your iPad to Work , says, "The big driver here are the users who bought these devices because they wanted the mobility that tablets like the iPad offer. They may or may not have had business applications in mind when they acquired the machines, but very quickly they started exploring the possibilities." Says Proffitt, users wonder: Why shouldn't I get my work e-mail on the iPad? Why can't I see my department sales data? He adds, "I think the success of the iPhone , which acted as a trailblazer for the iPad, helped. There were business apps already for iOS, and it made sense that iPad users would start clamoring for similar (and better) apps on the tablet form factor."

Proffitt is not the only one who sees it that way. Gartner recommends that IT organizations provide at least "concierge-level" iPad support for key users and prepare a budgeted plan for widespread support of the iPad by mid-2011.

Is yours a Windows shop with no interest in supporting an Apple, Android or webOS product? Tough. Stephen Prentice, a Gartner fellow and vice president, says in a statement, "Some IT departments will say they are a 'Windows shop,' and [that] Apple does not support the enterprise. Organizations need to recognize that there are soft benefits in a device of this type in the quest to improve recruitment and retention. Technology is not always about productivity."

I know explaining that to your CFO is going to be a real joy, but maybe, if you requisition him an iPad 2, he won't notice. It's got to be worth a try, right? Because, ready or not, tablets of all sorts are coming to your business.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com .

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