In a previous post on mobile BI, we looked at how tablet PCs have changed the way we access our data and the convenience and flexibility they offer to executives and field personnel. Tablets are becoming the primary deployment platform for business intelligence at many organizations due to their ease of use, their popularity among the executive set, and the perceived boost they give to productivity of on-the-go workers. Thanks to tablet PCs, you're not restricted to hauling a laptop to meetings – you can simply slide out your lightweight tablet, take notes via touch screen technology, and zoom in and out of graphs to focus on pertinent information.
Imagine this: you're meeting a client for lunch at a local coffee shop and you've planned for this to be a very informal yet productive sit-down. Not only does your tablet PC give the client the impression that you're up-to-date with the latest technology, but it also provides hands-on experience when you allow them to explore data that's important to them on your device. And just like that, your iPad transforms into a demo tool for your client. It allows you to share information in a more hands-on way than you otherwise could.
According to a November 2010 CIO Magazine survey, IT leaders are considering ease of use first when making mobile purchase decisions – followed by support, services, reliability and security. For many people, having a larger screen with touch capability is easier to use than a tiny smartphone screen or Blackberry trackball, so there’s one advantage right there. Zooming in and out of BI dashboards on an LED-backlit screen blows your smartphone screen out of the water.
But is there a price to pay for the ease of use and freedom you get from deploying mobile BI on tablet PCs?
Let's consider a few of the drawbacks – because let's face it, when it comes to technology, it's never all rainbows and sunshine. If you already own a tablet PC for personal use, do you need a separate one for work? In all likelihood, you probably would not want to carry 2 tablets around. It's certainly not as convenient to switch between tablet PCs as it is to switch between your personal phone and your business phone, for example. So if you choose to maintain only 1 tablet and install corporate applications as needed and then you accidentally lose your dual-purpose tablet, it would be a real headache since you'd have compromised both personal and corporate information. Wayne Eckerson, author/consultant in the BI space, examines this challenge in his April "Wayne's World" article.
There is limited IT management software for the iPad, which means limited administration and software governance. If you can get over these issues, what about security – both data security and device security? iPads are expensive and if one is stolen or misplaced, the replacement costs are hefty. In the same CIO Magazine survey cited above, the chief area of concern for IT leaders is that mobile networks are vulnerable to attack, which makes your corporate data vulnerable. However, mobile BI applications encrypt data so it's secure during transmission. Also, some vendors go as far as wiping all of the BI application's data from the device every time the app is closed or the tablet is powered off.
There are also cost considerations. The price of the tablet PC isn't the only thing to budget for – you'll also need to think about the data plan. It's likely that you'll start users off at the lowest-cost plan, but if they go over the data limit, it can become costly, though this is usually due to non-work related overages from streaming movies, etc. These extra costs may be a nuisance to the Finance Director who thought that his approval of 15 iPads was a big enough expense for the year. But there is an option to reduce data plan costs for your iPad – simply tether it to your mobile phone and share the data usage. It’s not encouraged by Apple, but it's certainly possible.
So while we are excited about portability and touch screen technology offered by tablet PCs, we must also be mindful of the administrative, financial, and data security challenges they present. It's like any other technology product – there are upsides and downsides, but it's really a choice best left to individual companies and users. We've seen dozens of reviews touting tablet PCs' ability to impress in a corporate environment and the wow factor it brings to presentations. Sometimes, that's enough to tip the scales in a positive direction.