Please stop making Windows 7 tablets / Why Microsoft need to redo Outlook

I work in an industry where IT security is paramount. Inside that industry I work in an organisation that has requirements on IT security which are higher than some others. What does this mean? It means there are no iPads, no iPhones, no Android devices.

There are very strict rules (and protections) against the use of untrusted devices. Before anyone says "There are always ways around it, just use an iPad." please take this as wrote. Where I work is one of the last bastions of the BlackBerry. But then to use one they are required to have a 12 character password, and Bluetooth is disabled. Plugging in an iPod to charge at work will generally generate a phone call in under a minute. Not that it would have mattered, the devices are blocked.

But like other places we have executives, and these executives have meetings. These meetings are often with people outside the organisation, and even outside the industry, much like every other industry. At these meetings executives like to show up each other, new phones, laptops, and tablets. It only takes one, and everyone needs an iPad.

I have no issues with iPads. I have no issues with tablets in general. I even see them being able to add value to an organisation. I don't have any issues with iPhones, although I prefer Android, neither are going to receive work email anytime soon. I would love to replace my work BlackBerry Torch with something (anything) else.

The response to requests for iPads is a well practiced one: The devices aren't (security) cleared for use on the corporate network. You can't use one for work email, work documents, or anything else work related. The executives usually then take their request higher, where an agreement is reached where they can use an iPad, but it is essentially a personal device with no corporate data or email. It doesn't take long before they start to complain that the iPad is not very useful and would be much improved if they could get their email on it.

From this point it is only a matter of time before a few of the executives get together and somehow work out that Citrix works on iPads. Citrix is a mainstay in the industry, like BlackBerry phones, allowing connections to secure environments from untrusted devices. Used widely by support staff for after hours work, but also by other staff to access emails and documents away from the office. The only incident likely to cause the Help Desk to get into a state of complete panic other than 'Citrix is down' is 'the Internet is broken'.

Trying to explain to an executive that they really don't want Citrix on their iPad doesn't go down well. They want their work email on their iPad and they know they can do it with Citrix. Why is it an issue?

This is where the pain really starts. It was fine when most people had a Nokia 3210 as their personal phone. Even an old BlackBerry seemed fancy. It had a keyboard and could get email. But now people who work in this industry - like any other - have personal laptops, personal phones, many even have their own tablets. They use email on their smartphones and surf the web on a tablet. They expect the same experience from their corporate devices.

Citrix on the iPad sounds awesome. It checks all the boxes. It is secure, provides large screen access to work email and involves the use of an iPad, what could possibly go wrong?

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via a.yfrog.com

What Citrix gives you is your desktop applications delivered to your mobile device. Sounds OK, but in practice can be more frustrating than no access at all. Don't get me wrong - it works, it provides a function, and I use it far too often to get to work resources when at home. But using Outlook through Citrix on a tablet with a finger is not a pleasant experience and is not what the executives (or any one else) are looking for to meet the requirement of work email and work documents on their tablet.

A corporate Windows desktop and associated applications delivered to a tablet via Citrix doesn't help anyone.

Where do we go from here? There are some simple requirements for a modern mobile workforce. These are the same across most industries and users:

Hardware

  1. Device is always on / boots quickly
  2. Light weight, easily portable
  3. Long battery life

Software

  1. Finger Friendly Interface -> Access to native applications for PIM
  2. Access to use native applications to open documents (including sensitive corporate content)
  3. Access to work content when 'offline' / local storage

It is usually around now that PC hardware vendors start circling. Promising an enterprise grade experience, with enterprise class security. They start to talk about delivering a familiar interface that means users wont need to be retrained. They will use traditional hardware which is easy to support and manage (and easy for them to sell).

From Dell:

  • Familiar features: Hit the ground running with an OS interface you already know. Produce and edit business documents on the go with the Latitude ST, powered by Intel® Atom™ processors and running Windows® 7.
  • Enterprise ready: Enterprise-class security features and network compatibility let you manage the Latitude ST just as you would any other PC.
  • Convenient size: Starting at less than 2 pounds (816g) this multi-touch tablet can follow you anywhere, and with a screen size of 10.1" (257mm), it’s big enough for work applications.This sounds fantastic! Then they present the solution.

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via i.dell.com

Windows 7 using your corporate Standard Operating Environment (SOE), PC hardware which can be built using current OS deployment processes, a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) for hardware encryption.

Because it is just a Windows 7 laptop that is lacking a keyboard the same security policies need to be enforced. This means a pre-boot password for the hard disk encryption, only there isn't a keyboard, carrying a USB keyboard to unlock a tablet kind of defeats the purpose. Then there is authentication to the corporate network, something that can be hard outside of the office.

Because it meets all of the requirements of a corporate notebook and can be encrypted it can be used to store data locally, and the native PIM applications can be used, but you don't want to. After all of this it comes back to the original issue with iPads. Using a finger to navigate through Outlook is not pleasant. Using a finger to use Windows 7 is even worse. While Microsoft touted the much improved Windows 7 interface as ready for tablets it clearly isn't.

Using a Windows tablet like this can remove Citrix from the equation. It can be a more responsive experience but still comes down to trying to use applications built for a mouse and keyboard without a mouse or a keyboard.

Windows 7 tablets are not what consumers want. They don't even meet the requirements of many enterprises. All the reasons they are able to be used in a corporate environment as a trusted device and can be managed like any other device are the same reasons why they don't meet the usability requirements.

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via a.yfrog.com

Windows 8 looks to address at lot the usability and interface requirements. Metro is finger friendly. But in order to be useful Microsoft desperately need to port their email application from Windows Phone, or preferably introduce an "Outlook for Metro" product, anything less will leave Windows 8 tablets largely useless to what I can only assume is their proposed target market - enterprise.

I understand this is a unique situation.

To all those that have a mixed fleet of hardware include BYO Apple and PC notebooks, I am happy for you.

To all those that connect their iOS / Android devices to their corporate network, I am envious.

To all those that have valid use cases for Windows 7 tablets (I guess you all work in health looking at the advertising material from all of the major vendors), I am glad there are devices to meet your requirements.

To all those that are able to use products like Good to deliver corporate resources to personal mobiles, I am still waiting for a security certification that is recognised and support by my industry, but I live in hope.