During last year's holiday shopping season, Amazon's newly introduced Kindle Fire gave Apple's iPad its first real taste of competition. This year, the tablet field includes a much larger range of tablets across both the business and consumer markets including the new Kindle Fire HD, Nook HD, Google's Nexus tablets, Samsung's Galaxy Tab and Galaxy Note, Microsoft's Surface and other Windows RT devices, and Apple's fourth generation iPad and iPad mini.
That range of devices could prove challenging to IT departments after the holidays have come and gone as employees bring their new devices into the office. The iPad and full featured Android tablets won't be major headache since they can be provisioned and managed easily enough with existing mobile management tools.
Windows RT devices may be a headache since Microsoft's traditional PC authentication and management system - Active Directory domains and group policies - aren't supported by the Surface and other Windows RT tablets. Microsoft is, however, offering enterprise management solutions for Windows RT devices. There may be a learning and adoption curve, but in the long run Windows RT tablets shouldn't pose a massive or unsolvable problem.
Devices like the Nook HD and Kindle Fire HD, however, are another story. Some basic integration with enterprise systems like Microsoft Exchange is available for these devices, but the options are pretty limited.
This raises a big question when it comes to these truly consumer-focused devices - are there even viable business use cases for them?
The answer is yes, but within a narrow set of limitations.
Both the Nook and Kindle devices rely heavily on app and content stores from their respective manufacturers. That means that adding business apps is problematic at best and impossible at worst. Some key business apps may be available, but not all of them. Also as companies begin to reposition their internal line of business applications and workflows as native mobile apps, the Nook and Kindle devices aren't likely to gain support for those apps. That strikes out more advanced use case scenarios, but being limited isn't the same thing as being completely useless.
The latest versions of the Kindle and Nook tablets do offer basic integration with Exchange, which delivers access to corporate email and related services. They both come with decent built-in web browsers. As such, they can handle some light office tasks and access web-based internal resources.
As AirWatch CEO John Marshall recently pointed out to me, that basic functionality can go a long way.
Email remains one of the most common uses of technology in the workplace and many companies maintain web-based corporate intranets that could be accessed from these devices. That can provide access to a range of web-based internal tools as well as access to a corporate inbox. That light office use may be more than enough for some employees and executives.
An even more interesting point about these types of devices is that they have a lot of potential in some specific niches like training and documentation. Marshall pointed out that many businesses and organizations have training and professional development programs. Tablets of any kind can deliver greater audience engagement in training classes by providing additional information, interactive features, and a searchable digital copy of class materials. Even if those tools and content are largely web-based, they offer more value than a thick binder of materials and a lecture-driven presentation - and they can deliver even more value if that content is formatted as an ebook loaded onto Nook or Kindle tablet. After all, we're talking about devices that evolved from stand-alone ereaders.
These devices can also serve as low or no-cost solutions to access some basic systems like time and attendance or employee scheduling and time off requests. They can even provide basic access to feedback and reporting tools. Of course, their best use cases will center around content consumption, which can be key in some fields like customer support, retail management, and even policy compliance.
Are these devices going to challenge full featured business tablets? Not really, but that doesn't mean that they can be completely discounted as potential workplace tools.