With the calendar poised to tick forward another year, what lies ahead for tablets in the enterprise? Here's what appears in my crystal ball:
Tablet hardware seems to have chosen its final form factor: the now-ubiquitous slate. In the same vein, we seem to be reaching a plateau in terms of size and weight. Whereas 2011 offered obvious reductions in thickness and dozens of grams in weight, I see 2012 bringing more academic reductions than compelling moves forward. Until battery and screen technology change dramatically (think of thin, flexible "electronic paper" that likely will not be commercialized in 2012), not much new will happen.
Manufacturers will continue to deliver ever-more ridiculous acronyms for higher resolution display technology -- and while more is always better, I don't see current screen resolutions being much of an impediment to tablet adoption in the enterprise.
With size and form factor settled on, we will likely see some innovations similar to the Asus Transformer, with detachable keyboards, "convertible" tablets, and the like. With the arrival of Windows tablets, we'll likely see even more keyboard concepts, which will be a welcome addition for enterprise users.
Microsoft reenters the fray
The big news of 2012 will be the return of Microsoft to the tablet battle. While they never actually left the market, the Windows tablet seemed to be the unloved stepchild of the Microsoft family, until a recent refocusing pinned on the arrival of Windows 8. Microsoft's main selling point is a compelling one: all the perks of a tablet -- like quick booting, size, and weight; "glanceable" information; etc. -- with the huge benefit of running existing Windows applications.
For the enterprise, add a heaping helping of staff with decades of experience with the Windows OS, infrastructures designed around it, and Microsoft's experience with the enterprise market. There's a lot to like on paper, as conceptually Microsoft could deliver what amounts to an iPad that runs Windows apps, but it's going to be challenging to implement a "jack of all trades" OS successfully.
Windows 8 also represents a dramatic departure from previous generations of the operating system, presenting a large adoption cost to the very enterprises most interested in the new generation of Windows tablets. Until I get a Microsoft tablet in my hand, I'm reserving judgment -- but this is the obvious device to watch in the enterprise space for 2012.
Apple goes corporate
While Microsoft prepares for the massive effort behind introducing a new operating system, Apple will continue to "go to work" in 2012. Several CIOs I've worked with have the sense that Apple has been dragged kicking and screaming into the enterprise space, where concerns like manageability, security, and integration are being foisted on a company that's more concerned with elegant design and lifestyle-based marketing. While this may be the case, Apple has never been a company to ignore a sales opportunity, and they seem to be ramping up the enterprise functionality in their OS and the support organization within the company.
While the iPad misses a key feature vs. Windows 8 (the ability to natively run Windows applications), Apple has a large catalog of existing applications and the advantage of a fairly mature and stable platform. The challenges that come with any large OS release might give Apple an opportunity at Microsoft's expense.
Apple will likely release a new iPad, and the consensus among Apple watchers is that we'll see a higher-resolution screen and likely a negligible decrease in thickness. Apple has been good about maintaining backward compatibility, so if you have a compelling need for an iOS-based tablet, I would not let an impending iPad 3 stop you from laying the groundwork now.
Google remains a bit of a dark horse in the enterprise space. Their operating system is seemingly more open and extensible than iOS, and it uses more traditional application development tools your staff may already be familiar with. The main challenge with Google is the hodgepodge of hardware manufacturers, operating system releases, and vendor-specific customizations that lay atop the OS. Turn on your ASUS and Acer tablets, and you'll have a fairly dissimilar experience vs. the familiarity of Windows or iOS.
Additionally, Android has taken a fair number of lumps in 2011, due to malware and other nefarious applications. Security risks are largely a measure of the success of a piece of hardware or software, and Android's openness and increases in market share have it becoming more of a target.
The good news is that Android seems to mirror the rest of Google's offerings. It is bleeding edge technology, rapidly updated, and with patience able to solve all manner of computing problems. If your company has experience with Google software and uses Google's other tools, Android makes a great deal of sense, and device costs are below Apple's (and most likely Microsoft's) offerings. In short, if you like the way Google operates, Android will likely continue to outstrip Windows and iOS in terms of rapid technical evolution, and its increasing market share translates into more applications.
2011 was a landmark year for tablet evolution. Most manufacturers delivered a new generation of more refined and mature products, and all of them seem to understand that the enterprise is interested in these devices and has some unique needs that are now being incorporated. The playing field seems to be down to the three companies I highlighted above -- Microsoft, Apple, and Android -- with RIM and HP largely losing the tablet battle.
2012 promises to be a bit less frenetic, and with third-generation hardware products on the radar, refined operating systems, and a refocusing on tablets by enterprise veteran Microsoft, there should be interesting times ahead for CIOs considering a tablet deployment.
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. Patrick has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are Patrick's alone, and may not represent those of his employer.