Apple has now announced that it has sold 2 million iPads in less than two months, and sales continue as fast as Apple can produce units. Reliable industry rumors say Hewlett-Packard may announce its own next-generation tablet, possibly called the “Slate” (a much better name than iPad) and running the WebOS it purchased with Palm Computing, and Google is also expected to announce a competitor running Android. On June 1 Asus, which has built a market success around its low-cost netbooks, has announced plans to introduce its own tablet, the Eee Pad, running Windows 7 and priced at around $400-$500, early next year.
With all this going on, the big question is: Are we seeing a major sea change in home computing, and if so, given the strong relationship between consumer and business technology, what will this mean for business IT?
Honestly my initial reaction to the iPad was, “Knockout interface, but what will people use it for?” It turns out I had that backward. The real question is, “What won’t people use it for?” Certainly the iPad is limited. It has no multitasking, which means no applications and especially no security software running in background, which may prove an Achilles heal in the long run. It has no USB ports (a single low-power USB can be added using the $30 digital camera adaptor, but personally I want three – one each for a keyboard, mouse, and a USB thumbdrive – to support desktop as well as handheld use) or SD slot, and the lack of Flash can limit online game playing and Facebook use.
And obviously it is not intended for demanding home applications such as digital photo and movie editing. But in reality the iPad is perfectly adequate for 80% or more of what most consumers want to do on a computer, and it excels at multimedia applications including e-book, e-magazine, and e-newspaper display. “Time” on the iPad is a vision of the future of magazine publishing. And except for its lack of Adobe Flash, it excels as a Web browsing platform. My conversations with friends who own iPads indicate that these devices are heavily used and are carried everywhere.
So with the iPad becoming a phenomenon in the consumer market and at least three competitors poised to introduce their own tablets and presumably expand that market even further, it is easy to envision a future in which most middle class homes worldwide have a thin tablet of one kind or another for every member over the age of 10 plus a single shared inexpensive desktop computer to handle those home applications too demanding for a tablet and to provide a platform for backing up the tablets.
The Impact on Business IT
So what is the impact on business IT? Probably somewhere between the impact of the iPhone and that seminal consumer computing device, the personal computer. But, while the personal computer fragmented control over business applications and especially vital data, the iPad and its competitors may actually drive the re-consolidation of computing services. In the office these tablets will become the preferred end-user devices for consuming network-based services. With their focus on multimedia and lack of major resources for handling complex applications, they will be near-perfect front-ends for business applications that run over the network on background servers. They will reinforce and give new energy to network computing trends such as service oriented architecture (SOA). End-users who have often resisted IT’s attempts to centralize control of applications and especially data now will be breaking down the CIO’s door demanding delivery of multimedia versions of business applications using huge amounts of data to devices that are custom made to be front-ends of network computing. This could be IT’s opportunity to finally get its arms around all the important data in the enterprise and lock it back into the secure data center environment while boosting end-user productivity and, as a bonus, replacing $3,000 laptops with $500-$800 tablets
Action Item: The iPad trend offers a win/win situation for both IT, with its increasing concern for data security, and end-users, who will gladly trade control over data that should be in the data center in any case for a multi-media work experience on their new tablet computers. But it will only work if CIOs get ahead of this trend. This time they need to be ready when end-users start demanding delivery of business computing in the form of multimedia software-as-a-service over the corporate network and Internet. Those that resist this trend will miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.