This month has been an interesting one for enterprise tablets, as two players with grand visions, HP and BlackBerry (the former RIM), have made noises that they're essentially abandoning their in-house tablet ecosystems.
HP is an interesting case, as the first quarter of this year marked the sale of WebOS — and more recently, HP moved into the lower end of the tablet market in the guise of the HP Slate 7, a 7-inch Android-powered device. WebOS was HP's ill-fated play in the mobile space, launched when the company acquired Palm and its innovative OS in an attempt to make inroads against Apple. Over $1.2 billion, a major marketing campaign, and 49 days later, HP pulled the plug on the WebOS-based TouchPad.
Several weeks ago, after a half-hearted attempt at open-sourcing WebOS, HP closed that chapter on its product strategy by selling its remaining assets to LG for use in smart televisions. While it's easy to brush off the sale as a trivial footnote in tablet history, HP had an incredibly grand vision for the platform. WebOS was not going to be limited only to tablets, but embedded into printers, expanded to desktops, and integrated and connected across all manner of devices, with WebOS serving as the "glue" that tied everything from smartphones to printers together.
Similarly, RIM (now BlackBerry) has grand plans for its PlayBook tablet. It was billed as an enterprise device that would revolutionize productivity when it went against the "entertainment-focused" iPad. The device marked BlackBerry's unveiling of a new OS, which — like HP — was developed from the acquisition of another company: QNX. A few weeks ago, BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins quipped, "Tablets are not a good business model." Of course, this was a dramatic contrast with the hopeful statements surrounding the PlayBook launch a few short years ago.
Companies and individuals that invested in the TouchPad or PlayBook likely feel stung by vendors that have essentially abandoned entire ecosystems and associated promises of grandeur. While neither device gained broad market acceptance, that does little to assuage a company that purchased a fleet of these units based on promises that have since vanished. This is certainly not the first or last time in IT that a vendor has released a technology to much fanfare and later pulled the plug, especially in an emerging and turbulent sector. However, is there any truth to Mr. Heins' comment that tablets are on the way out, or are there any lessons to be learned from HP?
The obvious change that's occurred in the tablet market since the TouchPad and PlayBook were introduced is that it has matured around two OS vendors, with juggernaut Microsoft attempting to reinsert itself as a third player. At the time of the TouchPad and PlayBook, Android's future in tablets was uncertain, Microsoft was touting Windows 7 as its tablet solution, and a sea of unknown third parties were offering tablets and home-grown operating systems. The vendor landscape is now significantly more stable, with the biggest question mark being Microsoft, a company unlikely to abandon tablets in the near term.
Tablets look like a mature market, but there is some truth in Mr. Heins' sentiments. I believe that tablets as a device category will become less relevant. We've already seen the lines between tablet, laptop, and desktop blurred, and pricing pressure increasingly impacts hardware vendors. In short, much of the "magic" around tablets is happening on the software end, and it's largely occurring on cross-platform, cloud-based services rather than closed ecosystems like Apple's. These devices are making applications more accessible, yet manufacturing them is looking like a less lucrative business.
For enterprises, there are the obvious lessons around balancing a need for an emerging technology with the maturity of the market — a lesson that we all know intuitively, but we'll likely repeat this mistake due to the nature of the industry. The more interesting lesson is the tectonic shift in computing away from the device and software residing on the device, to data and application access on a variety of form factors and connected operating systems. The sooner we can adapt enterprise applications to this paradigm, the better we'll be able to ride the mobile computing wave, whether it manifests itself on tablets, laptops, wearables, or an as-yet-unknown form factor.
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.