Apple, as a computer company, has been focused on the consumer market. It has paid lip-service to trying to tackle the ‘bread and butter’ corporate market, instead relying on niche departments to decide on Macs in order to run specific applications, or for professionals with the budget and freedom of choice to make their own choice to purchase, run and support a Mac.
But Apple is, by its own admission, no longer a computer company. The launch of the iPod in 2001 started the shift, but now Apple derives more than half of its revenue from the sales of the iPod and iPhone. The iPhone has tremendous traction, selling more than 8 million units in the first quarter of 2010, with many going to business users.
Now Apple is tackling a market that has always promised great things, but never really delivered. The new iPad tablet has already seen sales of over two million units in less than two months, and Apple is on course to ship more iPads this year than the entire sales of Windows Tablet PCs since it launched in 2002.
Arguably, the failure of the Tablet PC to reach critical mass lies in the name. It is a PC, with all the drawbacks that entails for extreme mobility. The success of the iPhone demonstrated the potential of devices with limited capabilities but sophisticated and polished interfaces, and this has translated into the apparent early success of the iPad.
Apple is far from alone in sensing the opportunity. HP acquired Palm for its WebOS which it intends to deploy on a range of devices including tablets, while Google is also making moves, with partner Dell launching the Streak Tablet based on the Android platform.
While it is not yet clear what the long-term picture will look like, it is certain that there will be a sizeable market of ultra-portable computing devices that do not run Windows.
Many of these new tablets will be purchased by business users. Much of their use will be an extension of what smart phones are used for today: communications, such as voice, texting and email; web browsing; content consumption, such as music and video; and amusement or productivity through native applications.
Tablets enable a much richer environment than smart phones thanks to their larger screens, better performance and longer battery life. This will enable tablets to make the switch from being content consumers which smart phones are quite good at, to content producers at which smart phones are not very good. And this will mean that business users increasingly will want to use the tablets to do work. The difficulty is that the whole environment is new and alien to IT.
Getting business software vendors to produce and support applications for a plethora of different tablets may prove difficult. We should not just assume tablet users will easily be able to work with ‘all’ business systems natively. Even an apparently simple task such as document viewing and editing is no mean feat: it is fairly easy to locate reasonably good viewing ones, but it is very difficult, to find a workable editor that can preserve the document formatting and structure, making sharing, distribution and document flow problematical.
One way around these sorts of issues may be to provide access to applications through the use of Web or Cloud systems, although the use of advanced scripting tools and languages for rich application environments could pose compatibility or usability issues for tablet users.
The best approach, especially in the short to medium term as the market matures and develops, will be to avoid developing bespoke solutions as much as possible, and make use of tried and tested and widely implemented technologies. Virtual desktop solutions, for example, may prove to be an ideal way to deploy applications and services to these new tablets. Such solutions from the likes of Citrix, VMware and Microsoft, are already being used to provide remote virtual access to systems, including mobile workers with laptops. It is a small additional step to provide this facility for tablets, provided a client application is available.
Although desktop virtualisation may be a ‘silver bullet’ for running business applications on the new wave of tablets, it is not the ‘perfect answer’. Continuous connectivity will be essential to productivity, as the applications run externally. There is not yet the ability to cache applications for offline working. Hence, if there is no connection, then the applications will not run. This will be fine if users can locate coffee shops or other locations with Wi-Fi services. It may even be suitable to run virtual desktop applications over 3G connections, although cost may also be an issue if the user is highly mobile and travels internationally as roaming charges quickly mount up. But in many situations where users may wish to work, such as on trains and planes, or even automobiles, connectivity may be patchy and unreliable.