Tablets In Business

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Existing Controls May Not Be a Good Fit for Tablet Management

By Judy Jefferson
Earlier this year, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in Washington, D.C. expanded its existing technology contract to include tablets and smartphones to be used to access electronic health records and other internal applications and data.

In doing so, the VA reportedly became the first government agency to broadly deploy these devices to its workforce. While not as notable, the agency also joined that not-so-elite group of enterprise companies across the U.S. and the world that are officially and unofficially opening their doors to next generation Apple iPads, iPhones and a host of Android and Windows Mobile devices and now facing some serious issues of management, control and policy enforcement. 

By some estimates, in fact, as many as 72% of the companies polled by an independent agency admit that although they have already opened their doors to tablets, there is presently no official deployment or management policy in place for their use. 

This is a serious issue for IT managers and support staffs who are struggling with ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) trends that threaten to increase as more smartphones, tablets and other small land powerful devices flood the market. Shipments of media tablets worldwide are forecast to increase this year to 60 million units, which is a slightly higher number than predicted in May of this year, according to market tracker iSuppli. Total tablet shipments are expected to hit 275 million units or more by 2015. 

Other surveys have shown that while 22% of companies in the U.S. have deployed tablets and have a formal deployment process, up to 72% of companies have opened the door to tablet use without any formal acceptance or deployment strategy.

Establishing Back Door Policies
Just how should companies prepare for the influx of tablets, either through the back door or by way of some kind of a structured procedure? One thing becoming a lot clearer is that existing policy controls and management structures developed for notebooks, smartphones and other traditional mobile devices are not entirely transferable.  The sheer nature of tablet devices, as well as the types of users and how they use them make it unreasonable to apply current rules for user access and authority levels.   

What is needed is a newly drafted set of guidelines and procedures that apply to the Web-based nature of tablets and the intended user community. 

Just what points should be included in a set of basic guidelines for tablet procurement and management in business? Security is clearly a top concern since these devices do create some unique challenges by the sheer number of these systems in use, as well as their ability to drill through a company’s VPN if access is approved to tap into the right data sources.  

The danger is that tablets, unlike most other devices, can be easily and prolifically packed with personal and non-business applications that might inadvertently contain potentially dangerous code and access permissions that might impact corporate applications. While many companies have rules against using personal applications on corporate networks, most do not actively monitor activities unless there is a suspicion of inappropriate user actions. 

Dealing with the Nature of Tablets
Device management is another sore point when it comes to tablets in the enterprise. Although it may seem that tablet policies may easily fit neatly under the umbrella of other mobile devices at use within an organization, there are some distinct operational nuances that can create some serious gaps.  For example, most mobile device management (MDM) tools have the capability to automatically and religiously poll every officially-deployed mobile device to ensure it is equipped with updated and properly licensed applications.  These tools may also automatically lock a device if a user fails to reboot and install necessary updates and security protocols.

Given the Web-centric nature of tablets, and the ready availability of apps of all types out there in the cloud, it is unlikely most companies will have a policy of consistently polling tablets to make sure approved software is in use and that the latest versions are installed. By their very nature, tablets will always exist and operate outside the lines of the normal mobile controls and restrictions. In short, tablets will always be a bit rogue when compared with smartphones, notebooks and other mobile devices.

Since tablet MDM is a bit hazy at this point, yet another top concern involves user trust. Tablets will most likely be officially deployed or unofficially used by a lot of people who might otherwise not be assigned a mobile device or have routine access to a corporate net. So, there has to be a relatively high trust factor, or as some experts note ‘a stick that goes along with the carrot’. What this means is that if tablets are allowed within an organization – either officially or unofficially – then some policies should be in place and these should be made very clear to the user population. 

As more companies learn to cope with tablet use and the ‘consumerization’ movement in general – which centers on the introduction and use of consumer devices in businesses – then it is important to set some preliminary guidelines to avoid going down some potentially dangerous paths.

Judy Jefferson is a freelance technology writer based in the Boston area.

Tablets in Business 

Businesses are refocusing their mobile strategies and turning to tablets. But new devices present new challenges for IT and decision makers. Join TabletPCReview in exploring the world of enterprise tablets, with news and solutions-oriented analysis.

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