It has the makings of a bad joke.

A small business owner walks into a bank branch and asks for a new checking account. But instead of a stack of paper, a teller pulls out a tablet.

It could be an Apple (AAPL) iPad. It might be a Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Slate. It definitely has a touch screen.

The teller shows the customer several screens. The first is filled with information about business credit cards. The second is brimming with videos. The third outlines the bank's checking options. In the meantime that business owner, already an existing customer, can update her information without signing online -- perhaps even set up her bill payments. That's the promise of the tablet.

It incorporates electronic signatures. It's interactive. It's even paperless.

"To be able to do all of that without the paper, if the customer prefers it... there is your cost savings right there," says Nicole Sturgill, a research director in the retail banking and cards practice at CEB TowerGroup, at the company's annual conference in Boston. "This is a good reason to transform your branch workflow. It's a great time."

Microsoft (MSFT), which also offers its XBox Kinect and big-screen Surface devices for bank branches, is now pushing tablets on bankers.

"The future of the branch is not people just sitting behind a desk," says Mike Opal, an industry market development manager in the U.S. Financial Services unit of Microsoft. "You need the tablet."

Software vendors are primed to build custom apps.

ACI Worldwide (ACIW) is utilizing its recent S1 acquisition to build new mobile apps for bankers in brick and mortar stores.

ACI is now partnering with software development and systems integration company Customer Effective of Greenville, SC to build tablet software that uses Microsoft's Dynamics Customer Relationship Management platform.

"Every bank we talk to, talks about tablets," says Lee C. Peraldo, a senior vice president of sales and marketing at ACI. "It's, 'What are you doing for the tablet?' And there are, this would not be a lie, a couple of customers that have said: 'You showed us the tablet in your demonstration, we expect you to deliver.'"

These new apps, however, have to have all of the same functionality of a desktop, but be customized for a mobile touch-screen.

Banks can even make improvements on existing smartphone software, or website features that are not intuitive. That could mean a bank branch employee armed with a tablet can walk a new customer through the motions of a digital loan application.

Bankers can even monitor the weekly and monthly production of tellers, so that a branch manager can change things in real time based on what sales pitches are attracting new customers.

Most importantly, Sturgill says, whatever tablet you choose has to be rugged. You probably can't afford replacing one every time it hits the floor.