Opinion: IT must face the inevitable rise of the tablet

The trend is unstoppable, says Ted Samson

Any IT administrator out there who figured (or hoped) that this whole tablet "fad" wouldn't gain traction in the corporate world is in for a surprise: 41 percent of today's mobile workforce is equipped with a tablet, and by year's end, that figure could reach 75 percent, according to survey results recently released by iPass. And no, employees aren't just using their slick portable machines to play Angry Birds; 87 percent of workers with tablets said they use the machines for actual job purposes. This leaves IT departments with two choices: They can stick their heads in the sand and ignore tablets, thus risking security breaches, employee ire, and lost opportunities, or they can accept this next wave of mobile computing (grudgingly or otherwise) and adapt policies and practices accordingly. Evidently, end-users are already adapting their work practices to tablet use. According to The iPass Global Mobile Workforce Report, only 27 percent of workers with tablets received them from their respective organisations, meaning 73 percent are using their tablets for work, whether or not IT approves. iPass drew its findings from responses from more than 3700 employees at 1100 companies worldwide, Mobile workers are using their smartphones (94 percent of respondents have smartphones, by the way) and tablets for a range of business-related purposes beyond just checking email: 47 percent of the total respondent pool (those who may or may not have tablets) said they use their devices for taking notes, 39 percent use them for contact and contract management, 33 percent said they check into office suites via their portable devices, 30 percent sign in to social media for work purposes, and 25 percent said they engage in web conferencing via their tablets or smartphones.

One mobile device isn't enough

Especially interesting is how respondents who own tablets perform various work tasks. For particular tasks, it is the go-to hardware. For taking notes during meetings, 31 percent said they use laptops, whereas 48 percent said they use their tablets. Just under 6 percent said they use their smartphones for taking notes. Tablet owners also prefer their tablets for video streaming: 66 percent use their tablets to view video, whereas 25 percent use their laptops. Only 4 percent use smartphones. For web conferencing, the laptop is the hardware of choice: 63.8 percent of tablet owners said they use their laptops for the tasks, while 26 percent use their tablets, and 5 percent use their smartphones. Additionally, more tablet owners, 79 percent in all, turn to their laptops for editing documents. Just 15 percent edit docs in their tablets, while a mere 0.7 percent use their smartphones. The smartphone does have bragging rights as the preferred platform for checking email. Among respondents who own tablets, 35 percent check their email on their smartphones. 33 percent use their laptops while 29 percent use their tablets. Perhaps the least surprising finding in the survey: Apple dominates the tablet field for the time being. iPass found that 72 percent of mobile workers use the iPad or iPad2. The next most-used tablet is the BlackBerry PlayBook at 6 percent, while 5 percent of respondents use a Samsung Galaxy. The Motorola Xoom is used by 2 percent of respondents, while the Dell Streak represents 1.3 percent of the pie. The HP Slate eked out 0.9 percent of the market. Interestingly, 8.7 percent of tablet fell under the vague category of 'Other'. Apple indisputably reigns as the tablet king for the time being, but that landscape may change as Android, now groomed for tablet use, gains momentum. Recent InfoWorld tests of the iPad against competitors' offerings, including the Motorola Xoom and the Galaxy Tab, bear that out.

Worth the risks

The takeaway in all of this remains that, like it or not, mobile employees are using their tablets and smartphones for functions previously relegated to their laptops. The good news is that it translates to higher productivity among employees as their more wont to check email and perform other work duties than before. For example, 76 percent of respondents said they check email before starting their commute or arriving at the office, which contributes to the extra 240 hours per year mobile workers rack up compared to their peers. Thus, iPass recommends that IT departments no longer view smartphones and tablets as rogue devices. Rather, the company advises that IT "embrace these devices regardless if they are IT managed or not, but definitely put policies in place on acceptable use and train employees on those policies so that they understand how to secure the data on these devices." At the very least, iPass recommends that mobile workers be granted access to their work email on the unprovisioned smartphones or tablets. Further, iPass advises IT departments to take advantage of the opportunities that mobility presents. Employees are increasingly comfortable working on their tablets and smartphones, so companies should look beyond traditional front-office suites to apps that will further boost workers' productivity. On a related note, iPass cautions that employees are becoming comfortable with getting business applications from sources outside the company, such as application stores. IT should craft policies to support strong passwords and data security on mobile devices in the name of protecting sensitive data. The iPass Global Mobile Workforce Report has additional nuggets of information about how employees are using their mobile devices, and it's available for free. Samson is a columnist at InfoWorld

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