Are tablets going to be a real business tool?

Despite market studies, do they contribute enough to be worthwhile?

My favorite tip from journalism school, designed to help cub reporters get into government buildings or disaster areas or other places people didn't take kindly to being watched, was that if you look busy and carry a clipboard, you can go anywhere.

The tip was probably obsolete -- and a cliche on TV detective shows -- before I ever heard it.

PCs were already replacing paper-based systems because you could put information in faster, get it out more quickly and do more things with it than if it were clipped to a paperboard under someone's arm.

I always thought clipboards were kind of stupid, actually, until I realized the advantage of being able to take notes directly on the computer, especially if you have bad handwriting, and be able to look up supporting information online during meetings when you just know someone's blowing smoke but can't pin down quite how.

Those are the main reasons laptops took over from desktops and, eventually, smartphones got big.

So, yeah, a form factor that's easier to carry than a laptop, lets you take notes by hand and doesn't give you a squint and thumb-cramps from typing on a smartphone nano-keyboard might avoid complete failure.

The question for IT people, is if and when to either buy them or support a business unit's effort to do it, without breaking a budget that's already too tight and supplies too few warm bodies to accomplish what the business units already want.

There's plenty of quantitative data. Tons of analyst reports predicting how fast the market is going to grow, how many new devices are coming out, how many end users will sneak them in as rogue work devices, how many enterprises are going to buy and manage them and everything else you could possibly want to know about tablets.

They help fill out your business case, but don't give you as good an idea usefulness metric is a lot more precise, though. Laptops outsell desktops because being able to carry all your data, tools and communications with you to meetings, on the road or back home is a lot more convenient and efficient than leaving it at your desk when you walk away.

Voice calls were a killer app for cell phones, but once they could do music, Web browsing, email and chat, it was like showing fire to Neanderthals. No matter how loudly a proto-vendor protested that "Fire .9x" was just a demo, there was no way he was going to get out of that cave without having the secret clubbed out of him.

Tablets are convenient and light. They're not powerful enough to replace regular PCs (though that's changing), so they're going to pose a lot of synchronization, support and hardware cost issues. They also don't support all the apps you might need to run on them or security, auditing and database support you need from a "real" end-user platform.

You can address each of those issues, take a big chunk out of your overall PC support costs and make a strong run at data-loss protection using virtual desktops or streaming apps that run on backend servers and show users pictures of what would you would otherwise have to port to a very different piece of hardware and figure out how to secure.

That's why you read the words "tablet" and "virtualization" together so frequently.

Tablets are cool, and we're not as saturated with them as smartphones (or as disgusted with the carriers that provide them, yet) so I'm not sick of seeing or reading about them.

In talking to analysts and IT people, I haven't gotten a clear picture of whether most of them actually think most businesses should use tablets, or if they're just resigned to doing it because they have no choice.

I still don't know. Maybe you do.

Looking at old movies, footage from NASA and other places, I'm struck by how many non-clerical or delivery workers really did carry clipboards to keep important papers together and have a place to write (of course the NASA guys also wore pocket protectors, which we should definitely not revive).

The need to read and write on the run and not lose information while you do it is a persistent one, not in the evolution of the computer specifically, but in the way people work in groups.

Looked at that way, it's the laptop that is the odd shape because it requires such an odd position to use properly (though my spine has long since curved into a sharp typing-in-the-airport-chair curve, so it feels natural).

IT people need quantitative data to defend their product decisions or, in a few very advanced and probably annoyingly anal-retentive cases, to help make the decisions ahead of time.

This way of looking at new technology does not contribute to that requirement. It does tell me a lot more about whether to expect a product to be successful or not.

But only if I hear the other side of the argument from the people actually evaluating, implementing, supporting or rejecting the technology themselves.

So tell me what you think.

Whether you're testing, implementing, thinking about or not even bothering to look at tablets, do you think they bring enough value to justify buying, securing and managing them?

Or are they just another cool gadget end users drag into a secure infrastructure and force IT to adapt for no defensible reason other than good end-user relations?

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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