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Companies: stop making your employees use tablets

A general view at the Tween show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week 

I followed the bank branch manager into one of those little offices to set up a recurring payment from my account. While I pulled out my ID and my bank card, I watched her pull aside tangled cords and guide her tablet through a clumsy re-docking process. The tablet itself - an Android - had a heavy-looking cover with oddly shaped handles and a plug for the dock.

"Is that thing helpful?" I asked. Her bright, officious bank manager expression slid away and was replaced by a rueful grin.

"Ehh..." She sighed. Then she brightened again. "It's much more portable," she said. 

"But are you doing stuff where you need it to be portable?"

"Honestly, not really." 

This is a perfect example of how companies are misreading the mobile revolution. They see that tablets are a hot item, and they want to be part of that hotness. It's why Microsoft still believes its powerful Surface tablets can get a leg up against the iPad and various Android options. It's why PC sales have taken a nosedive in the last few years. It's why, even though tablets are often only really being used for entertainment, companies are buying in. 

But it's not always the right move. At a fundamental level, tablets do the same things computers do, just usually with less powerful software and hardware. They are way more mobile - and that's a significant difference - but they're often less capable. Or we are less capable at using them for certain tasks. 

It's almost like companies are trying to mimic the television commercials showing how a certain company is totally revolutionizing the way you do business. The story boards write themselves:

The guy in America invents a product. He sends the designs from his tablet to a guy in China who looks at them on his tablet, which he also uses to deliver instructions to the production line. Then the shipping company guy in Germany uses his tablet to organize the process of filling orders.

Boom. Awesome. Isn't technology amazing? 

Look, I get it - in some cases, introducing tablets to your business helps your business do better. I have carried my tablet to Marketplace's morning editorial meeting and other workplace huddles. And from boardrooms to factory floors, people are using them to try to be faster, more "nimble." Maybe as a customer, I'm impressed sometimes when the person on the other side of the transaction is using a tablet. We're all wrapped up in how consumer electronics are all the rage these days, and if you squint your eyes and blur your vision enough, putting a tablet or a smartphone in every representatives' hands makes a company look more innovative. Really, it makes a company look cooler. There's value in that. But how much?

This week, Gartner released its latest estimates for tablet and PC sales. While PC sales continue to dip and tablet sales continue to grow, there is some leveling out in the data. That is partly about the cycle of upgrades for businesses and consumers, and the maturing of early adopter markets like the US. But part of it may also be that some companies are discovering more tablets don't always mean better, faster, stronger business. 

I told my bank manager story to someone, and they told me a similar story about going to a brick-and-mortar store for a major wireless carrier. The associate began to input the information into a tablet and started having problems. He threw up his hands, and said "I'll be right back." He disappeared into the back office and returned a few minutes later with all the data input for the transaction done. What magic was in the back room? An old fashioned PC. 

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

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