Treat tablets like mobile devices or laptops? What about Windows RT with Microsoft Office? Dang!

What about tablets and MDM, MAM and MIM software?

Yesterday I wrote an article about MDM, MAM, and MIM software. Throughout the article I talked about how this stuff works with "mobile devices" and how that differs from "desktop devices." One question that people have asked me since then is "What about tablets? Are they mobile devices or desktop devices?"

The answer is simple: It depends! :)

If your tablet is running a phone-style OS, then treat it like a phone. And if it's running a desktop OS, treat it like a desktop. So iPads, Android tablets, Blackberry Playbooks are really no different than their phone-formed counterparts, and Windows 7-based tablets are no different than Windows 7 desktops and laptops.

When it comes to Windows 8, that's a bit more confusing since there will be two separate versions of Windows 8 depending on the type of processor in the device:

The "normal" version of Windows 8 is for x86-compatible processors. (Usually these are from Intel or AMD.) Those types of tablets run the regular version of Windows 8, and really they're just like laptops. You can install anything you want, you can wipe Windows and load Linux, etc. So Windows 8 tablets with x86 processors should be viewed no differently than laptops.

Microsoft is also releasing another version of Windows 8 called "Windows RT" that will run on ARM-based tablets. The ARM processor is a low power processor for mobile devices. It's a different architecture than Intel x86 processors, and it's what's in just about every mobile device in the world, including iPhones, iPads, Android devices, Blackberries, and Windows phones. (Check out for more info on this "Windows RT" version of Windows 8.)

Windows RT will NOT be able to run regular Windows applications, and users will NOT be able to remove Windows RT from their ARM-based tablets. In other words, Windows RT-based tablets are sort of like the Windows versions of iPads. This means that you'll end up treating Windows RT-based tablets like mobile devices. You'll use MDM, MAM, and MIM software to manage them instead of desktop management software like Microsoft System Center or Symantec Altiris Client Management Suite.

Sounds good! But there's a catch...

So far it sounds simple. As an IT admin, you're essentially managing devices based on what OS they run, so the products, agents, and tools you use are based on that, and how you view these devices is informed by that. On the surface, yes, it is that easy.

But there's a catch...

Many people look at the use cases for tablets differently from laptops. By definition, tablets are touch-based and are primarily used for content consumption, whereas laptops have keyboards and mice and are used for both content consumption and content creation. This is an important distinction, because the management you do for a mobile device might be much more simple than the management you do for a laptop. For example, since laptops run "real" versions of Microsoft Office, you need to deal with Windows user profiles, mail settings, Word preferences, etc. Mobile devices don't have Office, and thus don't need those profiles, settings, or Windows user management.

But Windows RT running on ARM-based tablets will have a "real" version of Microsoft Office. And it's possible that Windows RT tablets might come in form factors that have real keyboards and mice.

So if you have a device that runs Microsoft Office and has a keyboard and mouse, that sure sounds like a laptop to me! It seems like that device would need to be configured and managed just like any Windows laptop. Except Windows RT tablets aren't Windows laptops and can't be managed like them.

In fact Microsoft made it clear that Office on Windows RT won't allow any third party plug-ins, so it's possible that all of the techniques you used in the past to configure Office for your laptop users won't work.

So what do you do?

Most likely we'll see Windows RT tablets emerge as a special case. We do know that they will not have the ability to join an AD domain, so the fundamental tools you use to manage laptops won't work on them. And I assume that the MDM/MAM vendors will create software agents for their products that extend to Windows RT. So for the most part, you'll be able to treat these things like mobile devices.

The real solution moving forward, however, is that it won't matter. The tools you use to manage your mobile devices will converge with the tools you use to manage your desktops. We're already seeing traditional desktop management vendors starting to extend their tools into the mobile space, and Windows RT's lack of AD support sets the precedent that you don't need AD and Group Policies to manage Windows clients.

Longer term, if you believe the "manage the user, not the device," mantra, then how you manage devices won't matter. You'll manage users, apps, and data, and the tools you use will have client agents for iOS, Android, Windows 8, Windows RT, Windows Phone, Blackberry, Linux, and whatever other future platforms are released.

That's a ways off though, so in the meantime, focus on the OS that's running on the tablet and manage like you would any other device with that OS.

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Very near future it is impossible to try manage all devices. We really don't know what kind devices users will use in two or three years from now (or even now). You have to start think IT-enviroment without endpoint management.