One of the biggest hindrances to widespread tablet adoption is the proliferation of tablet platforms. Unlike desktop computers, where Microsoft Windows largely dominates the marketplace, there's essentially no heir apparent in the tablet space. Apple currently controls the most market share, but Google's Android and Microsoft's impending Windows 8 continue to vie for attention.
For everyone, from enterprise IT leaders to startup mobile software companies, tablet applications can look like a highly risky bet. Hardware costs for a particular platform are relatively obvious, but the cost to hire skilled developers or groom talent in-house is an expensive proposition, not to mention long-term support of any custom applications. This makes a cross-platform tool that allows one to hedge their bets while the dust settles on the tablet market look all the more compelling. Until the CEO of Facebook spoke recently, that tool looked like HTML5.
The promise (and failure) of HTML5
From a layman's perspective, HTML5 allows developers to create robust applications that run in a compatible web browser. This holds instant appeal: devices ranging from mobile phones to tablets to desktops running a variety of operating systems could access the same application and have it work in nearly the same way. Web-based applications are nothing new, but HTML5 adds the ability to run these applications and store data, even when disconnected from a network, which is a critical bit of functionality for a mobile device like a tablet.
HTML5 seemed to be making headway, with support in recent versions of the major web browsers and in the leading mobile platforms. This looked great on paper, but social media giant Facebook recently abandoned HTML5 for its mobile platforms and decided to "go native." They distributed a revised Facebook application for iOS using native iOS tools, and they promised the same in the near future for Android. Adding insult to injury, Facebook's CEO quipped that adopting HTML5 was "one of the biggest strategic mistakes we've ever made." Ouch.
What's an IT leader to do?
So, what can an enterprise IT leader do when a social media titan publicly shuns the very tool that was supposed to make cross-platform mobile development possible? I see three potential options. The easiest option, in terms of capabilities and leaving options for the future, is to build applications and services that require minimal functionality on the part of the client. While a customized tablet application might sound nice for your latest mobile financial dashboard, perhaps a mobile-optimized web application or even something as simple as an "email on demand" report generator will suffice. Much of the power of mobile devices is the ability to access data from anywhere, and with some creativity, existing tools may be able to provide that access through a less sexy interface.
Secondly, IT leaders can let vendors do the heavy lifting. Obvious functionality like email is baked into all the major mobile operating systems, but if you already use tools like Salesforce.com or SAP, vendors are rapidly creating mobile clients optimized for the major tablet operating systems. This is obvious and fairly easy, but there are still disparities, even within the same application running on different platforms. This also assumes you're already running a system from a major vendor that's making progress in the mobile space. If your ERP is homegrown or from a vendor without platform-specific mobile clients, you're out of luck.
Finally, while there's a fair argument that HTML5 wasn't the right tool for Facebook's mobile client, perhaps it can fit the bill for your enterprise application. There's a danger, of course, that the major mobile players have little incentive to fully support HTML5, and it may end up stillborn -- but for a basic application, HTML5 could be a safer bet than building platform-specific knowledge in-house and risking betting on the wrong platform.
It's tempting with mobile to get caught up in the spec lists and feature porn of the various platforms, but like any computing tool, remain focused on what business problems you can solve with a highly connected, highly mobile device. If you jump too quickly to the technical aspect of the solution, it's easy to get caught up in debates about development tools and platforms, when there may be a simpler solution that's "good enough" readily available.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.