I'm a big fan of tablets. I recommend them for most organizations as a springboard for encouraging employees at all levels to innovate, as well as for friends whose computing needs begin and end with email, Web browsing, and when they start to feel adventurous, e-books and online news feeds.
But let's not get carried away. From now through the foreseeable future (defined as three years for every business except the Psychic Hotline), tablets aren't going to replace PCs for most employees. There are just too many things PCs can do that tablets can't and, in many cases, aren't going to do.
Here's a look at where tablets fall short and where they fit in.
The tablet in the business environment
To make sure we're using our words the same way: If you give an employee a tablet and run a VDI client on it, the tablet hasn't replaced a PC so far as your software architecture is concerned. VDI doesn't replace PCs; it's just a different way to provide them. That, in fact, is the whole point -- your software doesn't have to change.
Also: As mentioned previously in this space, no matter how much we blather on about untethering knowledge workers, most employees who use PCs need them for heads-down production applications. Customer-service call centers, insurance underwriters, accounts payable staff -- fill in the blanks if you like, it's a very long list -- aren't going to get their jobs done on tablets because ... do I really have to spell this out?
But the PC is more than a software platform. It's a portal -- a window into a universe of information and capabilities. From that perspective, it's reasonable to ask whether tablets might, in fact, replace PCs as the employee portal of choice.
The answer: It depends on the employee. The more sophisticated the employee is in using information technology, the more likely it is the employee will want a tablet as an adjunct and won't accept one as a replacement. They'll want the tablet because when it can do what they need it to do, from anywhere and in a comfortable sitting position (for the employee, that is), untethered because it has batteries that last a day.
Where tablets fall short
For those employees, the tablet will be complementary rather than a replacement because of the long list of shortcomings when comparing current tablet technology to PCs.
Tablet shortcoming No. 1: Windows.
Here we're talking about the user interface style, not the Microsoft OS. PCs (I include Macs in the category) let you have more than one application open simultaneously -- that is, you can see more than one application at the same time.
Whether you're cutting and pasting information from a Web page into a document, clicking on a link in an email to open a Web page, or pasting an Excel chart into PowerPoint, having everything open in front of you makes a big difference. But you knew that.
(Of course, Galaxy Note 10.1 and the forthcoming Windows 8 Metro do include two-app split-screen capabilities, so window functionality may mature sooner than my three-year "foreseeable future." Let's hope.)
Tablet shortcoming No. 2: Screen real estate.
An average desktop PC has more than 200 square inches of real estate on hand. A laptop has about half that, which is still twice what an iPad provides. If a desktop or laptop user needs more, adding a second monitor is cheap and easy.
Whether the employee is working with a big spreadsheet or a layout-intensive document, is moving information around from one application to another (using the windowing capability), or is accessing an application while viewing a scanned document, having enough screen real estate is a bigger deal than just avoiding eyestrain. It allows for certain forms of work possible that would be impossible in a more cramped situation.
But you knew that too.
Tablet shortcoming No. 3: Work that goes beyond text entry.
Here are features I use all the time that aren't even glimmers on the iPad's horizon, whether your mobile word processing app of choice is Pages, Quickoffice, Office2HD, or Documents to Go:
- Style-driven interparagraph spacing (although each app places space automatically between paragraphs, only Documents to Go users can specify the actual before and after spacing)
- Image captioning with automatic table and figure numbering
- Document markup and commenting (although Office2HD on the iPad does Word-style -- and Word-compatible -- commenting and markup)
If you're sophisticated in your use of Microsoft Word, you knew all of this without my having to mention it. If, on the other hand, you're among those who say, with pride, "I only use 10 percent of Word's features anyway!" then you probably also say, with pride, that you don't know how to balance your checkbook.
Some advice: Learn more features. In this day and age, it's a hallmark of basic professionalism.