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Tablets like Apple’s iPad sport stylus options that turn them into digital notepads and make it easy to obtain digital signatures.ILKER CELIK/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Apple Inc.’s launch of the iPad almost 11 years ago ushered in the modern tablet and a new era of mobile computing for busy professionals. But while the iPad and other tablets have become much more powerful productivity tools, how useful has this class of gadgets become for financial advisors?

The iPad wasn’t the first tablet. Microsoft Corp. had a tablet version of its Windows operating system in the early 2000s, with plenty of support from hardware partners. Nevertheless, Apple’s sleek multitouch slate defined the category. Since then, other vendors have brought an army of similar devices to market – including Microsoft with its Surface series of devices.

With their small, light form factor, high-resolution screens and cameras, tablets give advisors a level of convenience they just can’t get with a bulky laptop, says Sherief Ibrahim, general manager of modern workplace devices at Microsoft Canada in Toronto.

“[The tablet] gives them the flexibility of true mobility,” he says, “but it also gives them the ability to do some of the more creative things, like marking up and annotating.”

Both Microsoft’s Windows-based Surface devices and Apple’s iPad sport stylus options that turn them into digital notepads. Compact keyboards with trackpads that double as screen-protecting covers also allow advisors to use these devices as mini-laptops for more intensive deskbound work.

At IG Wealth Management, advisors flocked to tablets as soon as they were allowed, says Brent Allen, senior vice-president, financial services distribution. The Winnipeg-based firm used to mandate one of six Dell devices for its network of 3,500 advisors. But in 2018, it adopted what it calls the “technology freedom” model, letting advisors choose their own computers, in line with minimum technical requirements.

Modern tablets easily match mainstream laptops in their technical power, and the company’s advisors embraced them in force. Today, 35 per cent of IG Wealth Management’s advisor network uses a Microsoft Surface or Surface Pro.

“They like the simplicity of it, and it’s compact,” Mr. Allen says. “But at the same time, it has a touch screen, so it’s good for electronic documents and signing. That’s the number one computer in our environment.”

In a pre-pandemic world, the tablet’s form factor made it great for presenting information to clients, says Darren Coleman, senior vice-president, private client group, and portfolio manager at Coleman Wealth, a division of Raymond James Ltd. in Toronto.

“The tablet seems a little more user-friendly, a little more accessible than a laptop does when you’re with the client,” he says.

In particular, smaller and lighter tablets don’t create a wall between the advisor and the client. The advisor can easily turn these devices around and present to the client by touching the screen directly, and they also make signing documents a breeze.

There’s just one problem with that today, of course: face-to-face meetings are rare. After the COVID-19 pandemic forced advisors to work from home, physical form factor became less important, says Duncan Stewart, director of technology, media, and telecommunications research at Deloitte Canada in Toronto.

“If you never leave the home, portability is not much of an issue, except bringing it upstairs and downstairs,” he says. “That decreases the shift that may have been going on towards high-end tablets, to some extent.”

Instead, other factors have taken over. One of them is ease of use. The small footprint that seemed so attractive for advisors when they were travelling or meeting with clients face-to-face has become problematic when they’re sitting at their home offices all day, Mr. Stewart says.

Although the advisors he knows own tablets for their personal use, they want a full keyboard with a separate numeric keypad when conducting number-intensive work.

“They also want a big monitor, so they can look at two portfolios side by side, or a portfolio and a Zoom call at the same time, on the same screen,” Mr. Stewart adds.

Mr. Coleman has several iPads at home, but he rarely uses them for work these days. Neither has he taken up Raymond James’ corporate option of a Microsoft Surface tablet, complete with all the software he would need to access information on his company server. The need for a bigger form factor keeps him with a more traditional choice.

“Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I still have the bigger laptop,” he says, adding that this allows him to access his office files and serves his video conferencing needs as well as any tablet device, with more comfort and space.

But while advisors might not be making a tablet their first device of choice these days, it can still be a powerful tool for enhancing online meetings, says Tina Carthigaser, partner and director of marketing at Advice2Advisors, a Toronto-based firm that coaches advisors.

In particular, she has been advising advisors on how to connect their tablets to Zoom meetings so that what they draw shows up on their clients’ screens.

“When explaining complex concepts and strategies, advisors need to keep it simple, and sometimes that means being creative and drawing out concepts,” Ms. Carthigaser says. “There’s no reason this needs to stop just because we’re in a digital world right now. Connecting a tablet to Zoom meetings with clients can help advisors explain those concepts and strategies better.”