Tablet computers are qualitatively different devices from laptops, and as they become more common in offices, they are going to have impacts on how users work and on their expectations.
One major difference is that while laptops are heads-down productivity machines, designed to support business activities such as spreadsheet financial analysis and the production of white papers, tablets are more focused on consuming that information. Thus tablet users will be more focused on consuming and combining data than on capturing it, and on thinking about the implications than on creating the slides. This implies that tablets will be more the tools of senior management, analysts, and others whose jobs are cerebral rather than those whose jobs are focused on high productivity. Of course many jobs involve some of both, and in many cases tablets will supplement rather than replace laptops and desktops. But to the extent they are used in business they will unchain users from the need to be constantly hammering on a keyboard.
Second, tablets are much more collaborative than laptops and will encourage a more collaborative, team-oriented approach to work assignments. In a physical meeting, for instance, sharing a business chart on a laptop can be a challenge. Put that graphic on a tablet, and you can simply pass it around the table. But tablets are also designed to encourage social networking more than laptops. In the increasingly virtual office spaces in which many of us work, they will become primary tools for maintaining connection with team members across the cloud and encourage greater interactivity with those coworkers.
Third, obviously tablets are much more mobile than laptops. Over time this is going to encourage greater amounts of telecommuting, whether that is from a home office 1,000 miles from the company's office or from a coffee house down the street.
Obviously these are already all trends that have been in progress for some time; tablets will just accelerate them. From the IT infrastructure standpoint the largest impact is the trend toward company social networking. Obviously no company wants employees discussing their work on public forums such as Facebook, so companies that have not already done so should investigate private social networking alternatives, whether those are based on software in the company data center or in the cloud, using a SaaS social network provider.
Action Item: These undoubtedly are not the only impacts tablets combined with ubiquitous networking will have on work patterns. Tablets are part of a highly disruptive set of technologies that include cloud computing, order-of-magnitude increases in computer power and storage availability both in the data center and in the hands of end-users, solid-state storage, and social media. Some of the most profound impacts these will have on how people work cannot be predicted. Therefore, IT needs to remain alert for new trends while keeping up with those that are already growing in the office.