Feds slowly catching on to tablet trend

Federal adoption lags behind the private sector, but new research projects a steep growth curve.

Tablet PC

Since the 2010 launch of Apple’s iPad, the tablet has seen roaring success across the world.

Most of the traction has come in the private sector, however. A newly released report by Forrester Research found 81 percent of companies have tablet plans, and predicts 250 million tablets will be in employees’ hands by 2016. Also by 2016, a staggering three quarters of a billion tablets will be in use.

However, the government may be poised to pick up the pace. Research from MeriTalk earlier this year indicated federal IT professionals expect tablet use among government workers to nearly triple -- from 7 percent in 2011 to 19 percent in 2013.

Numbers from the Nov. 5 “Mastering the Business Tablet Landscape: The CIO’s Mobile Engagement Playbook” report also show worldwide tablet sales will top 375 million in 2016, with about one-third of tablets acquired by businesses for employees. More than 80 percent of firms expect to support tablets for employees. Furthermore, IT decision-makers interviewed for the report say tablets will make their entry through different paths, including the “bring your own device” concept.

But while growth of tablet use in the government is slower, it is happening. One of the more recent tablet adopters is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which in late August decided to give tablets a try to help staff track information and communicate more easily. NRC CIO Darren Ash said the tablets will initially be used in a pilot program on construction sites in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee.

“People are enthusiastic about tablets as a laptop replacement and the breadth of applications tablets are being used for,” said Ted Schadler, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester and coauthor of the Nov. 5 report. “What that means in the federal space is that they have to prioritize the applications based on the value of putting it on a tablet. Is it a ‘nice to have’ or is it driving significant improvements in the way people work? What we find from talking to clients is that it is important; it is a game-changer.”

However, the transformative scenarios for tablets will likely be business-driven, according to the report. For CIOs in industry and government, it means being aware of how tablets can be used to conduct business and empower employees. IT leaders should push for business-driven tablet programs, according to Schadler and coauthor Simon Yates.

“We do have the consumerization of an employee-led technology purchasing, and with tablets there’s a lot of need to be connected to what are the processes and business activities and figuring out where the process can be improved,” Schadler said. “IT is too removed from the actual work in most cases, which means business – the executives and managers -- need to be very involved in re-engineering the organization to think about where the tablet as a tool can help accelerate a process.”

Tablets are ideal to promote the initiatives around a paperless federal government -- and digital publishing could be the factor that further drives home the concept, said Tom Suder, president of Mobilegov and industry chair of the ACT-IAC Advanced Mobility Working Group.

“If most workers can have access to a tablet, maybe we won’t print paper anymore,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest save tablets can achieve – the paperless office was predicted by BusinessWeek in 1975, and it’s never happened. I think it’s because of the form factor – you can’t really read a book on a computer. But a tablet gives you a lot more interactive experience.”

All the printers, ink and cartridges are all vast expenses to agencies, Suder said, noting that the decision to cancel the print edition of the Federal Register saved more than $4 million.

“The House Budget Committee spends $89 million a year on the printing and distribution of the House budget and congressional records – why are we printing all of this when everyone has tablets? I think this is the biggest game-changer in the tablet space,” Suder asked.

Although he achnowledged the break-neck speed with which tablet use has gained traction, Suder said he does not believe tablets will replace laptops anytime soon.

“I think the tablet is a complement, and if more people get it -- like the Forrester report said -- prices are going to go down and it will become more and more ubiqutious,” he said.

Schadler, however, urged people change their perception of the tablet as a just a companion device. Rather than thinking about the tablet as just a bigger smart phone and laptop replacement, “really think about the tablet as a new opportunity to do things better and different than you could do before,” he said.

NEXT STORY: What's with all these chiefs?

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