Tablets are still fairly young, even in the fast-paced world of consumer technology, but in many senses, they are starting to reach early maturity. Contrasted to this time last year, a new tablet company isn't arriving on the scene every other week, and seeing tablets out in public is no longer a novelty (although I'm not yet ready to retire the hearty look of skepticism that I can't help casting towards anyone taking a picture with a tablet in public). So, what's next for tablets, particularly in the enterprise space? Here's my take, based solely on rumor, speculation, assumption, and pure guesswork.
Faster, thinner, lighter
Hardware-wise, it seems like we've settled on a slate form factor, with the occasionally useful variations -- Asus' Transformer with its keyboard dock being notable. A few manufacturers have tried things like dual screens, but sales numbers indicate that we're going to stick with the slate/clipboard tablets for the foreseeable future.
Like notebook computers, most of the hardware innovation will fall into making the devices thinner and lighter and enhancing screen size and resolution. Apple and Samsung seem to be the most capable of striving towards thinner and lighter, but I would guess that we're going to be in a form-factor rut until something really innovative happens. While currently more science fiction than viable prototype, we may eventually see full-color, paper-like roll-able displays.
With little massive change on the hardware front, most of the "magic" will happen in software. Apple brought a touch-based interface to the masses and is now attempting to do the same with its new Siri voice recognition product. I haven't personally tried Siri, but the demo videos appear fairly impressive.
In the enterprise space, being able to find the nearest Chinese restaurant isn't particularly relevant, so what's really needed is an interface that interprets spoken queries into something an enterprise application can understand. Calendaring and dictated e-mails are here today, but it would be really compelling to be able to ask your device to "Pull up this quarter's P&L" and have that interpreter layer know to go to your enterprise financial package, run the appropriate query, and dump a spreadsheet.
Perhaps I'm being nostalgic for the unfulfilled promise of Microsoft's Tablet PC, but I still see a place for the pen, especially in the enterprise. Intelligently combined with touch and voice, a pen would enhance the tablet experience rather than hinder it. Note taking, completing forms, drawing, annotating documents, etc., are all better accomplished with a pen than my pudgy fingers, and while there are options for pen input on the current crop of tablets, most are a kludge at best. It's far more natural to collaborate around a whiteboard-like device than tap away at an onscreen keyboard, and there could be some very interested applications around pen-based collaboration.
Like notebook computers, it seems we've arrived at a place where hardware is no longer the constraint or source of innovation. A lot of consumers and purchasing managers stopped caring about the nuances of the various processors in the average computer, since any of them are more than capable of running current business applications. Similarly, tablet-processing power and storage are relatively abundant, and the ability to connect to "big iron" housed elsewhere dramatically increases the capabilities of even the most humble device.
While the above three items are little more than speculation, there's no harm in preparing for some of these innovations today. Experiment with small scale tablet devices, and prepare to key enterprise applications to talk to other devices in the near future. While we're still some time away from telling our device to pull yesterday's numbers, reporting through a tablet-compatible web portal is available today, and it delivers immediate benefit as well as preparing current systems for some of these innovations.
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.