We've all heard the quip "it's the apps, stupid" when it comes to explaining the success or failure of various manufacturers of mobile computing. Like most statements of this nature, there's a ray of truth to the concept, and the two leading tablet platforms — Android and iOS — are also the platforms with the largest app catalog. What's become interesting as of late is that the mobile operating system is now taking a back seat to the apps, content, and connectivity available on the device.
The most compelling demonstration of this shift is the recently announced Amazon Kindle Fire tablet. Amazon took a page from Apple's playbook and are short on technical details and hardware specifications of the device. They've even shrouded the operating system in a veil of mystery, billing it as a "heavily modified version of Android."
Amazon isn't playing coy or trying to keep us guessing. Rather, the operating system and underlying hardware are effectively irrelevant to what the device is trying to accomplish. You probably don't care whether the subway that carries you to work is made by Bombardier or Kawasaki Heavy Industries, you just want assurances that it will get you to work on time. Similarly, Amazon is betting that consumers don't necessarily care what's powering their tablet, as long as there's a compelling selection of games, movies, and shopping. The Fire is merely a vehicle to deliver a soup to nuts Amazon experience, and of course keep all that content revenue flowing into Amazon's coffers.
The shift will likely continue as various tablet manufactures see the hardware and OS increasingly as a ticket to their content delivery mechanism rather than an end in itself. On the application front, we're now cycling back to web-based applications instead of native code and looking to do storage and processing "in the cloud" rather than on a device.
This becomes relevant in the enterprise space, since the current agonizing decisions organizations make about which vendor to "lock in" will become less relevant. If tablet operating systems become little more than really smart web browsers, this is a boon to CIOs who can switch tablets at will or allow personal devices to easily connect to web-based corporate apps without entering the hardware procurement, maintenance, and tracking business.
Even in the larger enterprise technology space, we're continuing a gradual shift back to centralized applications, with the browser replacing the dumb terminals of yore. For tablets in particular, this makes life far easier for most companies, allowing tablets to act as near-disposable "dumb terminals" that can be purchased at commodity prices. This also helps centralize concerns around security and data, assuming little or no sensitive data ever resides on the device. Centrally locking application access alleviates many of the concerns around managing mobile devices.
To anticipate this shift, focus your energies on creating web-centric tablet applications or enhancing existing applications to support mobile OS-agnostic web applications instead of agonizing over Google Honeycomb or Ice Cream Sandwich. The latter choice will soon become increasingly irrelevant, a state of affairs that lets you focus on the services and value offered by tablets as a whole, rather than weeding through the spec sheets and OS feature lists.
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.