Tablets take center stage at mobile show

The CTIA mobile conference usually revolves around applications and services for mobile phones. But this year in San Francisco it’s tablet computers that are the center of attention—and not only because they are popular with consumers, as many might expect.

Wireless operators and other software and service providers say enterprises are increasingly asking them questions about managing tablets. Because many tablets can connect to cellular networks and the most popular tablets run mobile operating systems, companies in the mobile industry are stepping up to help out.

“As I’m speaking to enterprises, they have bigger plans for tablets than we anticipated,” said Michael Tighe, executive director for Verizon Wireless’ business solutions group. Some of his enterprise customers are starting to use tablets as a complement to laptops because they are easier to use for carrying presentations around the office, he said.

Also, because devices like the iPad run a mobile operating system and others are coming out using Android, the tablets are instant-on and have very long battery life compared to laptops, he said. “So they start changing how [enterprises] really look at workers and their ability to access and view applications,” he said.

Research from Forrester shows that tablets are expected to make up one-quarter of all U.S. computer sales in five years, said Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of mobility for AT&T. Nearly every major OEM has introduced or promised new tablets, he said. “There’s no way to stop tablets,” he said.

The new generation of devices solves some of the problems that older tablet PCs had, said Rusty Yeager, vice president and deputy CIO of HealthSouth, a health-care service provider. Earlier tablets had poor battery life and awkward sign-in requirements, he said. But the new tablets don’t have those issues, he said. “If we can get the security and manageability right, I think they can have a huge impact for us,” he said. “

Those are issues that enterprises are worried about. The management and security of tablets present unique challenges, even if the tablets run the same operating system as an enterprise’s approved phones, said Jim Szafranski, senior vice president of customer platform services for Fiberlink, which offers a security and policy management service to enterprises.

That’s partly because people use tablets differently. People don’t tend to download lots of documents to their iPhones, he noted. They may download attachments with e-mails, but they don’t often save them elsewhere on the phone. On the iPad, however, with its larger screen, people want to access documents so they are more apt to download them, sometimes storing and sharing them in a third-party application like DropBox. “Then if my enterprise deletes my e-mail profile, they’re not deleting DropBox,” he said. “The issues are much bigger.”

To enterprises worried about security, Research In Motion will have a big advantage when its tablet comes out, Tighe said. “Android and Apple approached tablets from the consumer perspective, so if an enterprise wants to use it, they have to add software to make it compliant,” he said. “RIM started from the enterprise.” RIM is relying on its existing security infrastructure built into its BlackBerry Enterprise Server to secure its tablets, he said.

RIM has a strong sales pitch for its tablet, which can do multitasking, has a proven security mechanism and will start out working with some of the leading enterprise applications from companies like Oracle and SAP, Tighe said. “It’s pretty attractive,” he said.

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