2011 tech priorities: Finding a place for iPads

Early adopters experimenting with security protocols

While businesses have warmed to the iPad much more quickly than they did with the iPhone, some say they're still figuring out what to make of the device.

While businesses have warmed to the iPad more quickly than they did with the iPhone, some say they're still figuring out what to make of the device.

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One big issue is deciding how best to utilize iPads in the enterprise space. Sure, they're light, accessible and employees love them - but are they really a replacement for either smartphones or laptops? The answer to both questions is so far "no," at least for most workers. (Read Smartphones or laptops for mobile workers?)

"We haven't assigned iPads to anybody as a primary or even secondary device," says Phil Getchell, IT director at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). "We have a total of 10 iPads right now and they're used for particular projects and not general use."

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Research released last month from ChangeWave found many enterprises are considering taking the tablet plunge. Among business IT buyers surveyed, 7% say their company currently deploys tablets, and 14% say their company will buy tablets in the first quarter of 2011. The iPad still dominates corporate purchasing plans, but ChangeWave also found growing interest in tablets from Dell and Research in Motion (whose business-oriented PlayBook tablet is due to begin shipping this quarter).

The MFA is using iPads for two main purposes. First, they're being assigned to greeters in the MFA library who need a light, portable mobile device that can give them fast information to answer visitors' questions about the museum. And second, they're used by the sales department to manage the museum's membership lists and sales, as well as other e-commerce functions. Getchell says the MFA has found managing its iPads fairly easy so far since it has limited the scope of their use and has restricted employees from taking their corporate iPads home with them.

Sharon Murphy, the senior vice president and managing director at Wells Fargo, similarly says that her company is still experimenting with managing iPads to learn their strengths and weaknesses. While iPads so far have been able to replace some of the key functions of smartphones and laptops, they aren't likely to outright replace either in the near future, she says.

Specifically, Murphy says iPads are good for data consumers who want a simple and accessible device that will provide them with ready access to data. But for data producers who write several large documents or who perform a significant amount of data entry, PCs will still be the way to go.

"We're seeing two camps develop: information consumers and providers," she explains. "And iPads certainly have a niche for those who are consuming more information and not producing as much."

Regardless of what businesses are using iPads for, the chief concern for any enterprise adopting them is security. Businesses have taken a cautious approach with how they deploy iPads because they still aren't sure exactly what security measures they'll need to take, says Forrester analyst Christian Kane. Although the iPad has some native security features, such as encryption and remote wipe, he says that businesses often have to look to third-party applications to have their security needs met. (See also: How to prepare the iPad for enterprise usage.) 

"Some businesses are looking to get a mobile device management solution that works across platforms so they can manage both Android and the iPhone operating system," he says. "The tablet market is still very new and although Apple is putting pressure on developers to get more security applications in place, it's something that's still developing."

Edy Almer, the vice president of product management for security vendor Safend, says security is even more crucial for iPads and other tablets than it is for smartphones since tablets can carry a lot more corporate data than smartphones typically can.

"On the iPhone you're not editing content except for e-mail, and e-mail is secured," he says. "On a tablet there's a lot more you can do. Let's say you're a doctor and you're using the iPad to review medical imaging results. The problem is that there is patient data attached to the MRI so this is confidential personal health information that's on that machine. If it gets lost it can be traced back to a certain person."

When it comes to looking for third-party security applications, Almer says companies should look for features that allow them to specifically define what data is and is not allowed onto company iPads. This, he says, will lower the risk that companies lose sensitive data when iPads get lost, as there will be less of a chance that someone could access key corporate data before the device gets wiped. He also says that companies should consider only allowing corporate-issued iPads into the workplace since that will give them more discretion over what security policies are enforced.

"If you're providing the iPad as an organization, you have the right to manage it and remote wipe it which you wouldn't if it wasn't your own device," he says. "So if you have a significant number of people using iPads it may be a good idea to provide them with organizational iPads rather than letting them use their own."

Murphy agrees that companies need to invest in third-party applications if they're going to have iPads on their network, and she says that Wells Fargo has had to take a step-by-step approach to figuring out which applications fit its needs best.

"We've had to bolt on a series of third-party tools so we can have a complete device," she says. "I call it a 'Frankenstein' approach."

This patchwork approach is slow and meticulous, says Murphy, which is why Wells Fargo has been cautious about expanding iPad uses in the workforce and is part of the reason why she doesn't expect tablets to replace more secure laptops or smartphones in the enterprise anytime soon.

Similarly, Getchell says companies should think very carefully about deploying iPads widely throughout their workforces before they make sure they can cover all their security bases.

"They should be concerned with how quickly the iPad has become very popular," he says. "You don't want it widely used if it isn't capable enough to replace the laptop as your main corporate device."

Find out what the other tech priorities are for 2011.

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