Tablet computers are fashionable, fun to use and offer an ever-growing array of applications that can waste lots of leisure time.
But in an unprecedented trend, companies are getting very serious about putting them to serious use at work.
Forty per cent of Canadian companies are planning to equip more of their employees with tablets over the next two years, according to a new survey of 270 chief information officers by Robert Half Technology. The main reasons cited included increasing employee mobility and productivity.
There is so much interest in business apps on tablets, from both employees and information managers, that it has "kicked off an arms race for smart mobile devices," in workplaces, said Ted Schadler, a vice-president and principal analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., author of another study of tablet use in offices
The most visible competitor in the tablet category is Apple's iPad, which has already sold millions worldwide since it appeared last year and will get a boost when a new model is introduced next week.
The tablet category includes the Cisco Cius, Google Chrome OS tablet, Dell Streak, Samsung Galaxy Tab, RIM PlayBook and the Hewlett Packard PalmPad. Apple, RIM, and HP have long relationships with corporate technology buyers.
The survey by Forrester of 3,000 decision makers at Fortune 500 companies found that 30 per cent of North American companies are already equipping some employees with tablet computers and three quarters of them are working on supporting employee use of tablets instead of laptops. Based on that analysis, Forrester estimated that tens of millions of tablets will be in use in U.S. and Canadian workplaces by 2015.
"That's huge growth. It will be the fastest uptake of any device in enterprise ever. Faster than PCs, faster than laptops and faster than smart phones," Mr. Schadler predicted. While the numbers weren't broken down by country, Canada is in line with U.S. trends in mobile device use in business, he added.
Even Ottawa has joined the bandwagon, announcing this week that cabinet ministers and senior public servants can expense the cost of iPads. Treasury Board President Stockwell Day cited cost savings and ecological advantages, because use of the tablets reduce paper and printing costs. Mr. Day also called iPads more secure than paper documents because they can be protected by passwords if they are accidentally left behind.
But allowing only some bureaucrats to file expenses for their iPads has raised the ire of members of Parliament, who were not included in the pilot program. "Why are we forced to use a horse and buggy when everybody else has got state-of-the-art equipment?" asked Winnipeg New Democrat Pat Martin.
That perception could become an issue in many businesses as employers provide them for some but not all employees, said Randall Craig, career coach and president of Toronto-based Pinetree Advisors .
If your employer is not providing a tablet, and you want one, you're likely to get a receptive hearing, he said. "In this economy, managers are focused on efficiency and effectiveness; if there is an app that will make you more effective, you can make the business case that you need one individually," said Mr. Craig, the author of Social Media for Business.
Most major organizations have clear guidelines on what types of employee technology they will pay for. Some advantages employees eager to use tablets can cite are their portability and the fact that you may actually use them more than a laptop, which you might carry but not open up on the road, he said.
And something that can be just as important is perception. "You can make the case that if people have old tired technology it reflects on the corporate brand. If you are using technology that is hot and current, that will have a positive impact on your brand," Mr. Craig said.
In the final analysis, though, it all comes down to any device being a tool for personal productivity, Mr. Craig cautioned. "It's easy to be attracted by shiny new objects, but at the end of the day you're managed by what you do. So make sure you are using it for work and it's not a toy."
TABLET SELLING POINTS
Tablets aren't destined to replace personal computers in all cases, but there are advantages that are attractive in many workplaces, said Christian Kane, a researcher on infrastructure at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.
- They are competitively priced with PCs.
- They are also light and portable. Early adopters have been people who spend a lot of time on their feet: salespeople, and workers in hospitality and health care, Mr. Kane said.
- Their displays make it possible to replace paper files and avoid having to print documents.
- Data security remains a challenge with any electronic device, but less of a concern with tablets because IT departments usually have security setups in place for company computers. Tablet users also tend to keep less information on the devices which is an advantage from the company viewpoint, Mr. Kane said.
- On tablets, companies can also set up provision to access corporate information only on applications that IT is providing and separate that from the personal information on the tablet.
WHAT'S TO LIKE
In a survey of 3,000 technology managers by Forrester Research, respondents cited three main reasons for favouring tablet computers:
Employees are opting to take personal iPads on business trips or to business meetings because they are lightweight and easier to use than laptops.
Using a tablet is proving particularly useful for small meetings or situations outside the office such as insurance underwriting, sales and construction sites. Pharmaceutical companies may issue tablets to sales teams so they can show a quick video or slides to busy doctors.
Tablets are being used in new places and new ways, from conference rooms to classrooms, allowing people to move at their own pace. A not-for-profit group told Forrester researchers that it collected pledges during a charity race using wireless tablets.