Tablets are Enterprise…

2011 marks my 20th year as a mobile computing person. I’ve used — not just reviewed or fiddled with — virtually every flavor of mobile device made for the panoply of operating environments over the last two decades. I’ve used a dizzying array of laptops, notebooks, Tablet PCs, PDAs, handhelds, mobile phones, smartphones and e-book readers on a daily basis.

My office, if you will, has been mobile for 20 years, and about the only device I haven’t used is a Blackberry (it just isn’t me). So the other morning before I jumped onto a flight, I was shocked to read that CIO’s mobility expert, Al Sacco, seems to not understand the difference between a Tablet PC and a mobile tablet and as the piece unfolded, it all went downhill fast. I should have stopped reading.

The piece that jarred me awake on that rainy morning was Sacco’s “Four Reasons Why You Don’t Really Need a Tablet PC.” What perplexed me from the start was that he fundamentally undermined his own argument by saying that “an ‘average’ tablet user that has no specific business-related purpose for employing such a device, the sheen on the popular form factor is rapidly wearing thin.” Since he writes for CIO, shouldn’t he understand that in business, technology should have purpose otherwise it doesn’t contribute to productivity, innovation, or the bottom line? Wouldn’t that be the logical point of view to write from given the audience? Apparently not.

It is clear he’s an “average” user (whatever that means as he doesn’t provide us with a definition) who doesn’t have a business purpose for the technology. I agree that not everyone does have a reason to own or use a tablet and that’s fine, so stop there. But why continue to write such a piece in the context of CIO, a publication about technology value in business? What he wrote has little to do with technology in the enterprise and more about his own views of a tablet as casual entertainment device. He could have written the same thing about a Nintendo 3DS or a Sony PSP, but it is what it is.

Like I said, his argument heads downhill and is largely irrelevant in the context of enterprise IT. First and foremost, a we need to address a major conceptual flaw. The Tablet PC is an over a decade-old concept of a laptop or notebook computer that runs a desktop operating system and contains extensions to enable touch or pen-based interaction in addition to the standard array of input methods. I think most would agree that the Tablet PC was a commercial failure. The machines were poor-performing, expensive and in some versions, exceedingly fragile. For the majority of Tablet PCs in the market, the tablet part was a novelty; the rest of the hardware was an underpowered and overpriced PC. In the end it became a niche vertical market device. How Sacco confused the two — a Tablet PC and a contemporary mobile tablet — is beyond me.

The next surprise was that he seemed to fundamentally not understand or recognize the paradigm shift that we’re now experiencing in IT around mobility — or at least not in the context of this piece. Today’s tablet isn’t a PC. To call a tablet a PC is like calling a smartphone a PC; they are related, but clearly not the same thing and with that pivotal error, his four reasons quickly eroded into irrelevance.

1. “Tablets really aren’t particularly portable.”

A device that weighs next to nothing, one can carry in hand like a paper notebook, and enables a person to work comfortably virtually anywhere without the need for an outlet, a mouse or even a carrying bag isn’t portable? Okay, so he admits that he doesn’t want to use his hands to carry things and that a device that’s smaller than his laptop keyboard is awkward. Although at the same time, he argues that a smartphone isn’t awkward because one can put it into a pocket, so that makes it portable. But a notebook can’t fit in a pocket and requires a large bag to transport it and that’s okay. What the…?

It is clear his personal tastes are coming through — as they should. He’s acknowledging what tablets, smartphones, e-book readers and handheld gaming devices are — personal technologies.

Today’s tablets, like Android, iOS, Windows Mobile and WebOS smartphones, are personal technologies that we choose as consumers to use in the manner that suits us best. That’s a huge shift from the enterprise desktop PC model of the last 30 years, which we’ve merely extended to laptops and notebooks. For example, I carry a compact notebook and a tablet and use them both at the same time (and without the awkwardness encountered by some, apparently). In business, the tablet serves as my library, an image processing tool for business graphics, collaboration tool, brainstorming device, second monitor for my notebook, and a presentation screen. The manner in which I use these technologies is different than my colleagues, and different from their colleagues. When it comes to my PC, however, how and what I use is remarkably similar to most everyone else. Why? The tablet is tailored to match my personal productivity requirements; my PC is tailored to my business. The tools that make me more productive as an individual are different than the ones of my peers. I’m not them, nor are they me — but we are in the same line of work and use the same enterprise tools.

Purely in terms of specifications, Sacco’s portability argument beyond smartphones makes no sense. Tablets in every way are more portable than a laptop. Just peruse the aisles of a business flight sometime and you’ll see the evidence. By the way, I take my tablet everywhere without a bag and carry it like a book without difficulty. The laptop stays mostly at home. That’s rather portable.

2. “Tablet is Just One More Piece of Hardware to Carry.”

Actually, today I would submit that my notebook is another piece of hardware to carry. My job requires a lot of reading and a notebook or smartphone don’t cut it. The tablet is ideal for that kind of activity. When I am in the field, I only use my notebook for presentations largely because the player software for my tablet isn’t mature enough yet. And when I am working with clients, flipping open a notebook creates a social barrier between myself and others. Tablets don’t create that perceptual wall. In essence, my PC is the boat anchor that I carry around.

Now I am not a one device person — I doubt we will reach that universal technology utopia anytime soon and I think to expect that is a bit naive. As long as technology is also fashion, we will see multiple devices. That said, I never want to fry my eyes for an extended period of time writing a document or reading a report on one of my smartphones (and I suspect my optometrist would agree), and a monster laptop screen isn’t worth the fragility, price, power consumption and weight (to that, my chiropractor might agree, too). Besides, I’ve nearly had notebooks destroyed in flights because of the large screen, cramped space, and reclining front seat nightmare.

In the end, I am a technology appliance guy who strives to use the right device for the right application as doing so makes me more productive. For me, smartphones and notebooks fill specific roles, as do tablets. They are not fully interchangeable.

I spent a decade tethered to my laptop and the weight, size, and clumsiness of the clamshell keyboard design (although a necessity) made using it as a universal device awkward. That said, a laptop is familiar and we tend to gravitate to things that are familiar rather than those that are not. Recently, I interviewed a number of college students and nearly all of them referred to their notebooks and laptops as PCs they “dust off” to use only when absolutely necessary. A laptop is not familiar to them; they gravitate to something else. Food for thought as these students will soon become our employees.

3. “Tablet Browser Limitations.”

There is considerable truth in this statement and to buy a tablet for merely Web browsing seems a bit extravagant. When this went off the rails is where the focus shifted toward an application and OS limitation rather than concentrating on the pros and cons, productivity gains and issues of anytime, anywhere access to information, services, and resources in a form factor that is intuitive, instinctual and personal.

Admittedly, not everything works in a tablet context and some things aren’t the best fit for smartphones or PCs, either. But to dredge up the Flash argument is simply lame, especially using entertainment rather than enterprise services to support the argument. I make use of enterprise systems and services that
depend on Flash for the UI and I absolutely hate it. The implementation is unpredictable and flaky. As Google has demonstrated, well done HTML, JavaScript, and CSS is more portable and stable. To get hung up on Flash is like getting hung up on COBOL. Let it go.

4. “Tablets (Mostly) Aren’t Built to Last”

To make a claim like that without any data to back it up is simply irresponsible. I have personally lunched more notebooks through daily use than any handheld or tablet device to date. In fact, I went through a laptop every six months due to screen ribbon cable failure and that occurred across multiple laptops from multiple vendors.

I regularly toss my tablets around my apartment, whereas I treat my notebook with kid gloves. If the notebook screen lid gets twisted the wrong way, the keyboard becomes part of an unfortunately liquid accident, or the chassis flexes in a strange manner, things start to fail and fail quickly. Even back when I had a Motion Computing Tablet PC, I found it to be more rugged than the laptop I had at the time. The thing that Sacco missed is that tablets don’t have moving parts. Even with SSDs becoming the norm in notebooks, the keyboards, trackpad buttons, hinges, and DVD drives all contain mechanical elements that will eventually fail. Protecting a screen is far easier than protecting the multiple failure points in a notebook. My advice, get a case.

So, What’s the Enterprise Story?

If there is one nugget to mine out of Sacco’s piece is that in business, one should adopt tablets with a plan and purpose. But that can be said for any enterprise technology, so what makes tablets any different? Hmmm. Apparently, not much.

I wrote this entire piece on my tablet while flying across country. Why? My laptop was too much of a pain to dig out and situate on the tray table with a glass of soda.