The Apple iPad was only released 18 months ago, but the swift proliferation of the tablet PC is already changing the way businesses think about user productivity.
The iPad has obviously made consumers swoon, indicated by the 32.4 million units sold in fiscal year 2011. But enterprise adoption of the iPad has also been higher than anyone expected.
At the Enterprise MobileNext Forum this week in San Francisco, one of the more discussed subjects was the benefits and challenges of adopting iPads and other tablets and mobile devices in the enterprise. In his opening speech, IDC Chief Research Officer and Executive VP Crawford Del Prete mapped out IDC's mobility forecast for 2010 - 2020.
Not surprisingly, the use of tablets at businesses is predicted to grow dramatically over the next five years. According to Del Prete's research, employee-owned mobile devices used to access business apps reached 41 percent in 2011, up 10 percent over 2010. It will continue to grow at this pace to reach 70 percent by 2015, says Del Prete.
In 2010, he adds, 6.8 billion mobile devices were in use; that number will more than triple to 29 billion devices in 2020.
But while this sea change will bring many benefits, managing tablets is a complex task full of risks and tradeoffs, from securing and supporting them to budgeting for them.
The Danger of Buying Tablets for All
While the benefits of tablets are clear -- more portable than laptops, instant boot ups, thousands of apps, beautiful and useful graphics and touch-based UI -- IT managers still grapple with tablet challenges.
They must set policies and secure access to data, but just as important as safeguarding the devices, says IDC's Del Prete, is figuring out how to budget for them.
"Tablets can increase budget by 60 percent and the refresh cycle is similar to a smartphone -- two and a half years," says Del Prete. "So if you're just saying yes to everyone who wants to use a tablet, you'll go broke."
Assess your workforce to see who really needs a tablet, he recommends. By and large, workers who are desk-bound and create content should use a PC, whereas executives and roamers like travelling salespeople who consume content are prime candidates for a tablet, he says.
Securing the Tablet: Balancing Control and Flexibility
The key to safeguarding a tablet like the iPad while also keeping users happy is having a balance between flexibility and control, says IDC research director Nick McQuire.
"Tablet use and the consumerization of IT have turned the traditional IT role on its head," McQuire says. "Users make the decisions now, and IT has to embrace this new freedom without allowing anarchy."
IT groups have the choice to support workers' personal tablets or buy them outright. The majority of companies are supporting personal tablets, part of the BYOD movement that started when C-level executives bought iPads and demanded to use them for work.
However, some organizations are buying corporate-liable tablets for workers (the more expensive option). Either way, says McQuire, IT should apply the normal security precautions - enforce passwords, use MDM (mobile device management) tools to manage tablets, provide hardware and data encryption, and deliver customer support - without going into lock-down mode where the tablet is restricting for the user.
"You don't want to limit the features like access to apps and fast boots that make a tablet great in the first place," says McQuire.
Benefits: Tablets Can Set Mobile Workers Free
In the best circumstances, tablets can help mobile workers to be more productive and drive value back to the business. For Roche, a Swiss pharmaceutical company with 80,000 employees, an aggressive roll out of iPads this year has liberated its worldwide sales force.
Starting in July, Roche purchased 8,000 iPads for its sales people and is planning to expand to 12,000. The iPads in use are replacing traditional notebooks, an aggressive move to say the least, but Roche sales reps, many of whom were very satisfied with a pilot program, are not complaining, says Marc Wiest, Project Manager, Group Informatics at Roche.
"Our sales reps are able to work more efficiently with iPads," says Wiest, adding Roche sales people often do not have much time to pitch to physicians, who are notoriously busy.
"They have 15 minutes with a doctor and they have to make the most it," says Wiest. "The iPad boots up instantly, the apps are immediately accessible and the graphics are outstanding."
Wiest admits that governance and compliance are a challenge with the iPad, especially in a highly regulated industry like pharmaceuticals.
"It is less secure than a notebook," says Wiest, "and it is a challenge to adhere to regulations with what is really a consumer device."
But with the more enterprises, such as Roche, creating their own apps and app stores and more enterprise software giants like Citrix, Oracle, SAP and IBM creating iPad apps, the iPad is evolving into an enterprise device and is worth the extra security effort, says Wiest.
"iPads have untied our sales reps from the desk, and given them the freedom to do more business out in the world."
Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Shane at email@example.com