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The Globe and Mail

Should companies give tablets to employees?

Hyacinths Pennefather displays a Blackberry smartphone, the Playbook, during a preview in Singapore on April 15, 2011.

In a recent note on Research In Motion's BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, Raymond James Ltd. analyst Steve Li wondered whether the new device could replace a laptop in the corporate road warrior's arsenal.

"In our view, absolutely," he said.

We've previously looked at how small and medium-sized businesses can use tablets in the customer-facing parts of their companies -as a substitute for traditional magazines at a dentist's waiting room, for example, or as snazzier restaurant menus.

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The question of whether small businesses should be handing out tablets to employees - as a substitute for something like a netbook or a laptop - is a little more complex. After all, at $500 to almost $1,000 a unit - not to mention data plans and software costs - they are not all that cheap.

Until now, tablets have been mainly consumer-focused. It's only recently that Apple has seriously started pushing to get iPads into the corporate world (with significant success, given that about three-quarters of Fortune 500 firms are now testing or deploying them, according to the company). But the launch of RIM's PlayBook means the race to make tablets as alluring to companies as possible is going to intensify in the next few months.

In addition to the PlayBook, another partially business-focused tablet is also due out this summer. Hewlett Packard's new line of mobile computers, powered by software from former smart-phone maker Palm, is designed to give businesses the option to buy their tablets from the same company that already sells them their printers and desktops.

One of the main problems with tablet adoption has been the lack of multitasking. Consider software such as that designed by Canadian firm BTracking. The company has built an app that lets companies monitor where their employees are during work hours, using the GPS feature on most smart phones. Although the app may sound Big Brother-ish, it has proven very popular with companies including delivery firms, who use it to make sure their drop-offs are on time.

For firms like Btracking, whose app must always be running, the concept of multitasking is extremely attractive. One of the PlayBook's major selling points is its ability to run multiple programs at once, meaning companies can run software such as Btracking and still allow their employees to do other things with the tablet.

But due in large part to its year-long head-start on the competition, Apple has also gained some advantages in the enterprise tablet space. Another one of the hurdles standing in the way of business tablet adoption has been the inability to install custom software on the devices or, in effect, use them the same way you would use a desktop PC, installing and running any software with ease.

In the business world, that problem comes with an added component - security. Companies must be able to trust the devices that have access to corporate programs and data. That's why firms such as Citrix have designed apps to secure the connection between iPads and the corporate server.

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Citrix's Receiver software allows iPad users to access company documents and desktop terminals from anywhere, making the Apple tablet a much more interesting proposition for companies.

There are still a number of reasons why small and medium-sized businesses are reluctant to hop on the tablet bandwagon. For one thing, the market is still in its infancy, and is moving quickly. For example, RIM is expected to launch an improved version of its PlayBook in just a couple of months, and it is still unclear whether the company will offer discounts to consumers and businesses that want to upgrade from the units that are currently on sale.

And between HP, Apple, RIM and devices powered by Google's Android operating system, it seems a new software or hardware upgrade to one of the major tablets comes out every month or two. In many cases, small businesses are waiting for some stability in the market before committing to a purchase.

But the good news is that, after a year of producing purely consumer-focused devices, tablet makers are shifting their attention to the business market this year.

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