This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2012 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY
Given the focus of my column, this is as timely a topic as any. I could easily focus only on Apple (News - Alert) and how much they’re causing a re-think in communications, but would rather look at the tablet category than a particular brand. You don’t have to look far to find stats and stories about tablet adoption, although the workplace is a world unto itself, and the impact there is less well understood, not to mention more complex than in the consumer space.
Of course, that’s part of the problem, right? As with smartphones, the lines are pretty blurry between business and personal use for tablets. At this point in time, demand for tablets is almost entirely end user driven and is based on personal usage. While BYOD is a blessing for IT in terms of saving money, employees have legitimate expectations about how to use their tablets in the workplace. The days are long gone when IT could impose restrictions on personal communications during work, and BYOD is simply the latest wrinkle along that spectrum.
Aside from the work/personal communications spectrum, there’s another dimension being really stretched by tablets – the balance of power between IT and end users. This has been going on since the advent of IP, and as intelligence pushed out to the end user, IT had to accept a loss of control over the network. In many ways, this made IT’s job easier, since end users could now provision their own telephony features and re-locate anywhere connected to the LAN without a service call. Tablets, however, take this to another level, since usage can be both on the LAN and off the LAN.
On one hand, tablets take employee productivity up a notch, but depending on the mode of connectivity, they also can function beyond the reach of IT. For old school network types, this may be too high a price to pay for BYOD, as this loss of control threatens to undermine their role. IT managers who are grounded in the Internet world are more accepting of the need to share control and welcome the openness that comes with personal devices.
At the root of all this is trust, and that’s what will really determine the success of BYOD. IT needs to trust that employees will use their tablets responsibly and not congest the network – and drive up bandwidth costs – with too much personal activity at the office. Keep in mind I’m only talking about IT here – this says nothing about the need for employees to also make judicious use of their time during the work day.
There’s also a key trust issue among employees. They’re fully aware this is tricky territory, and bring tablets to work with the implicit expectation – or perhaps hope – that their privacy will be respected. Companies with advanced capabilities such as WAN optimization have enough visibility across the network to identify the type of websites being visited and can throttle back bandwidth-intensive applications that are not deemed appropriate for business use. Clearly, there’s a Big Brother element at play here, so trust is very much a two-way street.
These issues first came into focus with smartphones, but the stakes are even higher for tablets given how business-friendly they are, especially for supporting unified communications. They are also more challenging given the variety of types available. While the vast majority of tablets are made by consumer companies for the consumer market, both Avaya (News - Alert) and others have offerings specifically for business. Interestingly, the same holds true for smartphones, with RIM being the business market vendor, and the rest being primarily targeted at consumers. The main twist, of course, is that smartphones were created for the business market, but have been eclipsed by demand from consumers. Tablets are unique in that their prime focus has been consumers, but their allure has proven irresistible for business applications.
I could parse out the nuances between smartphones and tablets quite a bit further, but that would take us too far from the topic at hand. The main theme is that tablets introduce a great deal of uncertainty but also opportunity for businesses of all sizes. In large enterprises, there are major policy issues to be addressed about ownership, privacy, security, etc., especially since most tablets will be BYOD. Business-only tablets like the Avaya Flare have great appeal by giving back some network control to IT, but most companies are not prepared to bear the cost, especially when employees are so willing to buy their own tablets. SMBs generally won’t face this dilemma, and will instead welcome BYOD since it provides so much value that employees could not benefit from previously.
As such, flexibility needs to be the watchword with tablets. There is certainly a hard money equation to consider, and for now, BYOD is going to carry the day here. This means IT must accept an implicit trade-off between gaining some cost savings and conceding some network control and accountability to employees. Nobody said this was going to be easy, but you need to look beyond the trust issues and consider the upside. As dominant as the PBX (News - Alert) has been until the advent of IP, mobility and video are poised to be the biggest value drivers in business communications, and nothing enables both of these as well as tablets. You can’t put a price on this today, but no matter what business you’re in, it’s not hard to imagine the many ways your employees can be more effective with a tablet, especially when it was their idea in the first place.
Jon Arnold (News - Alert) is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan.
Edited by Stefania Viscusi