Just as the iPhone, designed originally for the consumer market, made a major impact in the office soon after it appeared, so the iPad is about to invade the business space, and for the same reason – it is the latest senior executive tech toy, and senior execs like to play in the office. And the iPad will be followed by HP’s new WebOS tablet, which it now has publicly admitted is in development, the Google Android/Chrome neo-tablet, and last but probably not least the Asus Windows 7 eeePad.
But these are not just lighter, more portable desktop computers. They represent a new vision of computing as a service. The iPad will not and is not intended to run a collection of complex applications. It is the first computing appliance, more like a high-definition TV than a laptop computer. Just as consumers turn on the TV when they want to watch a program, without knowing or caring how that program is created and delivered, so they now can turn on their tablets to access whatever computing service they want without knowing or caring how that service is delivered. On the iPad, users cannot even see data files, much less manage them.
So how long will it be before the CEO or CFO calls the CIO into his office to ask why he has to put up with all the complexity of a laptop when what he wants is information, delivered in the form he needs, when he needs it? And what happens to the CIO who is not prepared to deliver that service over the network to the CEO’s tablet?
Neo-Tablets and Cloud Computing
These neo-tablet end-user devices are, in fact, the perfect front-ends for Cloud services, and increasingly that is how computing will be delivered to both the consumer marketplace and to business users. Compared to traditional laptop and desktop computers, neo-tablets focus on two things: next-generation, ergonomic user interfaces that make the old keyboard/mouse system look primitive, and sophisticated, multimedia display capabilities designed to deliver information in whatever forms users want.
By comparison they have few resources for running complex, demanding applications. What they do have is excellent wireless capability. This is reflected in the Apple App Store, which is filled with apps in three categories:
- Simple applications, such as games, that put small demands on the iPad’s limited resources,
- Packaged presentations, such as multimedia magazines, that have been created in the Cloud,
- Front-ends for Cloud services.
What these neo-tablets do is conceal the complexity of computing from end-users who have never been happy dealing with that complexity. In the new computing model, that becomes someone else’s problem. And increasingly that “someone else” will be SaaS services. Instead of running Quicken or Microsoft Money on their home computers, consumers will subscribe to a SaaS service from Intuit, Microsoft, or some other provider, move all the complexity into the Cloud, and simply view the status of their accounts, select the analysis they need by taping on the screen, and view the results. If the application crashes, if it needs more memory, if data needs to be backed up or the application needs to be upgraded, users no longer will care, any more than they care about how the movie or TV show they are watching is made. All that is someone else’s problem. Users cannot even see the data files on the iPad.
The Computing Appliance in the Office
That expectation of appliance computing is going to arrive in the office very soon. End users, and in particular senior management, will not be satisfied with computers that mysteriously don’t work, with calls to the help desk about problems. And they will want that same advanced user interface and multi-media display for their work computing that they are now being trained to expect as consumers.
This is going to drive IT services very quickly to a SaaS delivery model, in which all the actual computing and data management is done either in the corporate data center or on the Internet, with the results delivered to business users’ devices and displayed either through a Web browser or front-end display software that takes full advantage of an advanced user interface and multimedia capabilities. It will shift the focus of IT development from back-end applications to the presentation layer and the emphasis from technical elegance to presentation design.
None of this is new in theory, of course. Some of it goes back to the advent of client/server computing, with its vision of recentralizing all computing in the data center while the display would be handled by the desktop or laptop computer. But in fact that never really happened completely; a great deal of computing is still on the desktop, with applications like ERP and CRM delivering data to custom front-ends built from spreadsheets that do much of the final analysis. Now all that computing and data is going to be moved into the data center. And users are not going to care where that data center is.
Action Item: Like it or not, the consumer IT market is plunging into a generational change. The neo-tablets, starting with the iPad, are the perfect end-user devices for accessing Cloud services. To stay in the game, CIOs need to push their software vendors to repackage their software on the SaaS model, allowing IT to deliver computing as a set of services, hiding all the complexity while freeing their business users to focus on the complex business issues they face rather than forcing them to deal with computer technical questions that for them are unwanted distractions.