Jan 23 2012

Do Tablets Make Sense in the Workplace?

Whether used as ‘magic clipboards’ or for mobile computing, tablets solve business pain points in unique ways.

Can companies benefit from using tablet devices in the workplace?

Tablets are hot commodities — tens of millions were sold in 2011. A dozen-plus manufacturers are in this market, even if many refer to it as “Apple iPad and the others.” No matter your choice of device or operating system, tablets can solve some business problems when deployed properly. I see two approaches among businesses using tablets: “magic clipboards” and mobile computing.

In a well-publicized case of the magic clipboard or “glass manual” model, American Airlines pilots replaced pounds of manuals with iPads. Hyundai did the same with the owner’s manual for its high-end Equus sedan, partly as a publicity gimmick (which worked because many are still talking about it). In these instances, the tablets store unchanging information. A tablet can hold thousands of pages, and search functions make the information easily accessible. Companies are pushing textbooks onto tablets, and medical records in some hospitals now reside on tablets rather than on clipboards hanging from patients’ beds.

Clipboards let users mark the pages they hold, as do tablets. Delivery instructions, including the ability to pull up a map on a tablet, really do make these e-clipboards magical. When a doctor checks on a patient, a couple of taps captures time-stamp information on the device — saving time and improving record-keeping (and therefore billing). Any job requiring coworkers to use clipboards is a tablet application in disguise.

Tablet proponents often feel insulted by the magic clipboard label because they consider tablets to be full-computing devices, capable of doing anything. But if “anything” includes powerful desktop computing, they are fooling themselves. Even so, with the proper IT support, a magic clipboard can become a powerful front end to a wide range of compute-intensive operations.

Are Tablets a Notebook Replacement?

Companies with good support for mobile and remote workers are ahead of the game when it comes to mobile-device implementation. Anything a notebook can do from the field, a tablet can do, if you have the patience. Virtualized environments support tablets with proper client software, including Citrix for network access.

Any browser-based application, whether hosted internally or through a software as a service provider, will run fairly well on a tablet. Sure, some users will complain about typing on glass, but for $100 or so you can add a tablet case that includes a keyboard. Voilà — problem solved! With a keyboard, a tablet becomes much more acceptable as a notebook replacement. Tablets need cases, so spend a few extra bucks to make them more usable for data creation, not just data consumption.

Some police cars are also starting to use tablets in lieu of onboard computers or notebook systems because they’re cheaper and more portable. The tablet can go with the officer easily, improving reporting. Although standing and using a tablet can be a pain, it’s better than standing and using a notebook. With the case and keyboard, sitting and using a tablet becomes as easy as using a notebook (and the tablet boots more quickly).

Even though tablets are affordable now, supporting them for your business might not be. Companies relying on web-based apps and other browser-based systems, and those already supporting remote desktop access, will find the transition easier and less pricey than businesses supporting mainly large desktop environments.

Current pricing makes testing a couple of tablets affordable. Give them to workers on the move, both inside and outside the office. Check back in a month, and chances are your beta testers will have devised uses that you never considered. If so, that’s the justification to invest in more.