The consumer computer market has long been in the thrall of Apple and its CEO Steve Jobs. Apple devices inspire adoration and loyalty that border on the religious.
Until recently, though, the enterprise IT market was immune to Apple’s charms. Even when the company relaunched its PCs in the mid-1990s as globular, multi-coloured objects of desire, it did little to tempt businesses away from Microsoft Windows and the x86 PC.
But that has changed, and quickly. Since its launch in 2010, Apple’s iPad tablet device has transfixed the business community, becoming the kind of must-have executive gadget not seen since the early days of the BlackBerry.
Executives in the IT industry are among the most eager iPad enthusiasts. Over breakfast at the Ritz earlier this year, Microstrategy CEO Michael Saylor told Information Age, with absolute sincerity, that the iPad is “the first device in the history of technology that competes favourably with paper”.
It is a bold claim, but it is not without grounds. A recent report from Forrester Research asserted that that at the upper echelons of the corporate heirarchy, the iPad is replacing paper print outs as the chosen medium for consuming information.
“We have heard this from almost every major company,” Forrester wrote. “It makes you and your IT organisation look great when you can give your C-level staff and the board of directors an iPad instead of handing them a 400-page binder.”
However, it is typically the executives themselves introduce iPads into the business. A survey of over 400 enterprise organisations by US research firm Model Metrics found that a C-level executive was the first employee to bring an iPad into work at 49% of them.
Not surprisingly, the survey also found that it was executives who use iPads the most. Just over half the respondents (53%) reported that executives at their organisation use the device. That compares to 42% of organisations whose IT staff uses iPads and 32% whose salesforce do.
From downtime to uptime
Why is this? One reason is that with a starting price of £399, not everyone can afford an iPad.
But according to analyst firm Gartner’s consumer device expert Carole Milanesi, another reason is that the iPad’s user friendly design makes it popular with an audience of people (of a certain age) that would normally expect their secretaries to handle technology.
“The iPad transcends the perception that you need to be tech savvy to use it,” she explains, “so you don’t need to get your secretary to sort it out.”
So what are these executives doing with their iPads? According to Milanesi, the devices are normally used not as replacement to a laptop or smartphone, but as an adjunct. “Our position is that the iPad is mostly a companion device,” she says.
There are a few scenarios in which iPads come into their own, she explains. The first is in meetings, formal or otherwise. The fact that a tablet can be easily manipulated means that the user is able to control who can see the screen. This means that information can be shared, but also concealed.
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The ability to control who views the screen also lends itself to the second scenario: commuting. The iPad’s portability and the short time it takes to boot up also make it more convenient for use on a train than a laptop.
When RBS launched a tablet version of its investment research access application in June 2011, managing director of electronic markets Ron Karpovic remarked that the most likely use case was customers reading documents while commuting to and from work. “That, and when they’re sitting at home on the sofa,” he said.
For the jet set executive that spends much of their time either in an airport or an aeroplane, the portability and convenience of a tablet device translates to improved productivity.
One such executive is Eugene Roman, chief technology officer of Canadian software giant OpenText. Roman says he travels with three devices, a smartphone for communications, a laptop for authoring documents and a tablet for consuming them.
“If I’m sitting at an airport, one click of the iPad and I’ve got a large screen in front of me,” he explains. “And if I’m sitting in an airline seat, its much more convenient than a laptop.”
Roman claims that by allowing him to work while in transit, his iPad paid for itself in productivity gains in just two days. “It takes downtime, and turns it into uptime.”
What executives are not using their iPads for is accessing enterprise applications. Although many enterprise software vendors offer tablet versions of their product, the most popular business-related applications are concerned with personal productivity.
Instead, executives appear to be using their iPads primarily for consuming documents. This may change as tablets proliferate through the workforce, but for the time being the challenge for the IT department in managing corporate information on iPads is more a question of content management than of application adminstration.
One issue is making sure that the versions of documents that executives are using are up to date. This is enough of a challenge within a homogeneous PC estate, but managing documents across multiple devices and operating systems could prove particularly thorny.
Some organisations have tried to tackle this problem by developing their own applications. One client of Milanesi’s, for example, has built an application that combines a PDF reader with a shared filing system to manage documents for executive meetings.
The content management providers have clearly spotted this as an opportunity, however. OpenText, for example, acquired UK-based mobile development tool vendor WeComm in March 2011 to allow it to port its content management software to platforms including the iPad. And when the company acquired business process management provider Metastorm earlier in the year, CEO John Shackleton commented that “we see workflow being the glue that will allow people using their iPads or smarpthones to be able to access corporate data on the road.”
The challenge of keeping tabs on documents that executives are consuming via their iPads is about to get more interesting. In June 2011, Steve Jobs announced iCloud, a hosted storage service that is free to use for Apple device owners. The service has been pitched primarily as a way for consumers to storage their entertainment files, but it also covers documents created by Apple’s desktop productivity applications.
According to TechMarketView analyst Richard Holway, iCloud opens up a route for Apple to become a cloud hosting provider for businesses, albeit through an indirect route.
"More and more, Apple is coming into organisations through the back door," he says. "And if people are going to use their devices with a cloud environment at work, then clearly Apple took a major step forward towards an Apple cloud for business activities [with iCloud]."
iCloud will not be a compulsory service, and proper device management should keep it under control. But unchecked executive use of iPads may just lead to documents of high strategic value being hosted in one of Apple’s data centres.
Unfortunately, there appears to be some reluctance among executives to allow IT to interfere with their iPads. As the managing director of an industry association put it to Information Age, “I use a laptop, an iPad and an Android smartphone and they all work better when IT doesn’t get a look in”.
Gartner’s Milanesi confirms that this is a common attitude. “There’s a perception that if you go to IT with your device, you’ll lose your personaliation and customisation,” she says.
Indeed, it is perhaps the autonomy that executives feel over their iPads – both in terms of its ease of use and its separation from corporate IT – that makes them so appealing. Fulfilling its obligation to protect information without trampling on that autonomy is one of the more sensitive challenges facing the IT department today.