Recently, a TechRepublic reader left a comment in a discussion thread about the term "tablet wars" being a bit overblown. Sure, competition in the tablet marketplace is obviously a far cry from a true war, but the commenter suggested that the market was large enough for several varieties of tablets, and a "winner takes all" scenario would actually harm consumers and enterprise users alike.
The joys of a monopoly?
Competition often breeds innovation, but there are many areas in which monopolies are largely beneficial. Long-distance roads, for example, are generally government-administered monopolies. In most countries, once you get the hang of local signage, laws, and customs, you can travel consistently by automobile throughout the country.
While not a true monopoly, the proliferation of the Windows and Intel standard for enterprise computing was largely beneficial. A trained technician could apply his or her skills to a variety of companies, software developers could target a single operating system and hardware platform, and what amounted to a global standard drove down costs for WinTel hardware, software, and technicians. Even application development in most enterprises is relatively straightforward, with cross-platform development tools and programming languages that are available on multiple platforms.
Tablets, on the other hand, are still a relatively open market, something that creates a great deal of consternation in enterprises that are used to supporting one or two different hardware and software platforms within their walls. While competition is good in the consumer space, it breeds additional cost and risk in the enterprise. Allow any and all tablet platforms, and your development and support costs multiply for each additional platform. Limit tablets to a single "corporate standard," and there's a very real risk of betting on the wrong player. I can only wonder how many companies started down the HP TouchPad or BlackBerry PlayBook path and are happy with that decision today.
A service-oriented future
So, while the tablet "wars" don't involve bullets flying or geopolitical wrangling, there are very real costs to choosing the wrong technology. Landfills around the world are littered with everything from Beta video tapes to DEC workstations. With tablets, as with many other complex technologies, much of the cost is not in the devices themselves but in the support infrastructure and training required to keep the devices running and extract maximum value. The risks of choosing the wrong platform can be minimized to some extend by limiting your organization's exposure to the proprietary development tools that make up the preponderance of the development market for today's tablets.
Cross-platform compilers have long held promise on tablets, but they can present a sub-optimal solution. With the dust still settling in the tablet field, focusing on services that can be presented on a mobile device with minimal enhancement or custom development seems to be the safest bet for remaining neutral in the tablet wars. There is still an unavoidable cost with acquiring hardware knowledge and a management capability for the different tablet platforms, but this can also be minimized by pushing device support to the end user as part of a BYOD program, or offering a single, "officially supported" tablet platform and letting users who want to deviate from the standard do their own support legwork.
The tablet market is obviously much safer than true mortal combat, but it is fraught with financial risks for IT leaders. At this point in tablet maturity, playing the role of a neutral country and offering hosted services to a variety of platforms makes more sense than throwing your weight and resources behind a niche player.
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.