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The Tablet Goes To Work

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s someone who took her iPad to work from day one and continued to use it for both productivity and pleasure — not necessarily in that order or in equal measures — I can understand why tablets would fit right in at work. They don't replace laptops one hundred per cent, but anyone who works with both will find that a sizeable percentage of activity shifts from the desktop or laptop to the tablet. So it isn't at all surprising that it's become a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) age, with smartphones and tablets of all sizes invading the workplace.

Are all tablets suited to work life, though? One could argue that they are. Whatever the size of the app market for the device, some productivity essentials are bound to be available. Browsing, office suites, cloud storage, communication — you can put any tablet to work if you want to, and take it home and either relax or continue working as all good workaholics must.

We don't need a whole new sub category of tablets for work. Or do we? Ask the IT departments, who have a grand job handling a multitude of devices with varying levels of in-security hooking into enterprise networks, demanding specialised software so they can use it to share documents or communicate with colleagues. This is where Cisco — long known for its innovations in wireless, enterprise security and collaborative technologies — decided to jump in with a tablet, Cius. And no, it doesn't compete with the iPad, even though many companies are using the iPad and other tablets at work.

Cisco says it was working on the device a good 18 months before the iPad first became available, but from the start it was targeting a different market. The Cius 7-inch is a B2B tablet, and is not out to wow consumers. It is out to impress the IT department — and it should. I must admit I was sceptical when I heard of it and expected a tablet dressed in many ‘worky' bells and whistles merely acting as differentiators. I was also amazed that Cisco should want to get into the tablet market at all. Quite clearly, it isn't about the tablet, but the services and enterprise-friendly functionality Cisco can heap on the hardware, which it says it developed so it could control how it works rather than compete.

 I was most surprised to learn that the tablet runs on Android — modified by Cisco. You wouldn't think that was the most secure of operating systems, but it happens to be non-proprietary enough to allow for layers of security and other customisation. The community of developers that come with Android is also another reason they opted for it. IT departments will be thrilled to know they can set policies and certifications for what is used on the Cius. There is access to the Android marketplace, but with the IT team in control. It has its own enterprise app store too. But whatever you do with it, the Cius is a workplace device. Wherever the user takes the tablet, it establishes a connection with the enterprise's network using a virtual private network and, so, at no time is it on a non-secure connection.

Collaboration is a critical part of the Cius and Cisco likes to call it a collaboration device. It docks to Cisco's IP phone and computers, so you can switch seamlessly to work on one or the other with no hiccups. The video conferencing capabilities are fantastic; its most visibly impressive capability, in fact. It is the voice and video for enterprise and the virtualisation of the desktop that Cisco is most interested in. You can see the Cius at work in a detailed demo online — search for "Cius" and "inside story" to get there.

Cius will obviously not be available in the usual gadget marts as it will reach the user through the enterprise. It's available in India as of April and is being taken up by many verticals, particularly the finance sector.

Dell has also brought in an enterprise-friendly tablet, the Latitude ST. This one is a 10-inch, and the idea is for it to be a more mobile laptop, an extension of what you do already. The whole ‘corporate image' you see on a laptop can be echoed on the tablet, which runs on your Windows 7 OS and an Intel Atom 1.5 GHz processor with 2GB RAM. So Dell's focus, although it also takes into account security, application management and collaboration, is on providing a device for those situations when the mobility of the laptop isn't enough. To make it easier to input data into the tablet, avoiding any learning curve, it has a stylus.

Lenovo, Fujitsu and several other companies have tablets in the enterprise space, though all have not been launched in India yet. As this sub-category develops, it will be interesting to see what its equation with consumer tablets will be.

 mala(at)pobox(dot)com, @malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 02-01-2012)