An interesting aspect of 2011 was that we really did not witness much in the way of a tablet revolution. Apple remained the player to beat, Google's "revolutionary" enhancements to Android did little in the tablet space, and Microsoft remains a looming cloud that's yet to reenter the tablet fray. Probably the biggest news was the stumbling of major players HP and RIM and a rationalization among tablet hardware makers, whereby we're no longer hearing some company no one ever heard of announcing a new tablet every week.
When one considers the remaining 11 months of 2012, it seems further consolidation is in order. It's rare that a major technological platform can support two dominant standards, let alone the four or five current tablet players (Apple, Google, Microsoft, RIM, and WebOS). When you consider that the consumer market couldn't support two video standards (Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD or VHS vs. Beta), it's hard to imagine making it through 2012 without seeing a similar rationalization in the tablet space. Arguably, RIM's BlackBerry tablet OS and WebOS may already have one foot in the grave. So, which horse should an enterprise IT manager back in the tablet space?
The safest bet, from a pure software standpoint, seems to be Microsoft. Applications that will run on Windows 8 tablets will presumably run on Windows desktops, and despite a lack of commercial success with the last iteration of Windows tablets, you can still find models from the major PC manufacturers. However, if Microsoft makes a similar stumble with Windows 8, you may be left with a high-cost fleet of tablets that sacrifice usability and battery life for compatibility — essentially leaving you with a Beta video player in a VHS world.
iOS is obviously dominating the tablet space at the moment. On one hand, there's a strong possibility that Apple could establish a Wintel-like dynasty, with boring corporate-types toting their iPad 13 to the office, while hipster "content creators" scoff as they huddle over their trendy yet low-volume Windows tablets. On the other hand, we're early enough in the tablet game that Google or Microsoft could dethrone the king in a matter of months with some astute maneuvering.
With this level of uncertainly, a platform-agnostic strategy seems the best approach for enterprise tablet application development, while the various players fight for supremacy. This shouldn't be a painful compromise. In fact, some of the best enterprise tablet applications are built around data display and capture. If you can build and maintain business logic and data in the cloud and off your tablet, you're compromising little, building in ease of maintenance, and opening an application to a variety of devices and platforms.
Using a tablet primarily as a display device requires a shift in thinking as you consider and design new applications. There will always be cases where native code will be superior, but unless you're prepared to embark on a long-term relationship with a particular tablet vendor, I'd recommend minimizing native code for your tablet applications. HTML5 promises to cure many of these woes, but it's still more promise than practice at this stage of the game.
If you focus on mobile access to fast-changing data, you can likely solve business problems with minimal technical intervention. I've had clients win huge accolades merely by pointing tablet-equipped executives at existing web-based reporting and dashboard portals. Even something as simple as regularly "scrapping" financial data and distributing via that most universal of standards, email, could be a huge win with nary a line of custom development required.
Rather than obsessing and staking your technical resources on one platform, at this point in the tablet game, you should strive for creatively delivering data in a platform-agnostic manner. No one is certain who will be left standing once the tablet smoke clears, but by focusing on delivering fast-changing, actionable data, your IT department will be doing well no matter what.
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.