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Are tablets the future of enterprise computing?

Worldwide, tablet sales have gone through the roof, with over 75% year-on-year growth reported for fourth quarter last year. Meanwhile, PC sales continued to decline – down 5%, and down more than 8% the quarter before. Numerically, PCs still outsold tablets – 90 million in Q4 versus 52.5 million tablets, according to and ’s global figures – but if the trends continue, 2013 will see tablets outselling PCs before the end of the year.

This won’t imply more tablets than PCs in the market, of course: there is a huge installed base of desktops and notebooks out there. But a growing proportion of professionals own mobile devices, and want productivity to follow them as their mobile lifestyle develops. Although this is an exciting trend in productivity and usability, for IT professionals this means multiplying the number of supported platforms and applications, with all the associated costs, headaches and risks.

The rapid expansion of tablet and smartphone computing, and the race into the cloud, is combining to create turmoil in the industry from top to bottom. Almost no one will escape change, and for some industries, the change could be devastating.

On the face of it, the evolution is enormously empowering. Productivity is climbing, and employees are actively campaigning for ways to bring their workplace responsibilities into their personal time. Matteo Pagani, enterprise systems administrator for Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, described the phenomenon as “productivity envy, not device envy”. This is a good time to be a knowledge worker.

But it is a difficult time for everyone in the IT delivery chain. From the manufacturers to the software providers and internal IT operations, everyone is having their lives turned upside down. If the mobility wave turns out not to be a fad, we’re in for some major changes. None of the major players show signs of dismissing the trend – every major software provider has made investments in mobile, either launching directly into the space or hedging their bets against the risk of another SaaS swing redefining whole markets with little warning.


Samsung Galaxy TabSamsung Galaxy Tab

You don’t have to look much further than the PC market to see an industry turned on its head. Suddenly, the major PC vendors are under tremendous pressure, taking extraordinary steps to stay competitive – witness ’s abrupt decision to take his company private. Meanwhile, it is Apple, Samsung and Google who are taking the lion’s share of the mobile landgrab, with unlikely contenders like Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the list of top five tablet sellers.

There are plenty more surprises. No one really knows how the tablet market is going to end up. Small form factors may prove more popular – Apple’s Mini captured a healthy chunk of the company’s expected third-generation sales at the end of 2012, and the little BlackBerry Playbook benefited from deep price cuts to outsell the top-spec in the UK over the same period. Netbooks are all but dead, but Google’s Chromebook was Amazon’s top-selling notebook product over the festive season. And cheap tablets may be selling fast now, but that segment could follow netbooks into oblivion, as high-end models like the Apple the envelope of features and performance, driving user expectations away from budget, underpowered offerings where Android dominates today.

BlackBerry PlayBookBlackBerry PlayBook

Notebooks in particular are under pressure from tablets. In the UK, GfK reported that tablets outsold notebooks by four to one over the Christmas period. And now is threatening to redefine a whole sector with its tablet/notebook crossover Surface Pro.

Fact is, we just don’t know how this is going to turn out. Nor do the vendors, and nor does your IT department. Companies are faced with not only a hugely demanding mobile evolution, but one which is likely to twist and turn like a fish on a line for the next several technology generations.

Unfortunately, you probably can’t just wait this one out. There is no better example of mobile app development lead time than the South African banking sector, where has yet to bring its mobile apps to market, two years after led the charge, and not through lack of effort. If you are vulnerable to strong making a mobile play, you have a problem.

How big is the demand? Although tablets are still in the early growth phase in South Africa, smartphones are growing rapidly – analyst famously predicted 80% smartphone penetration in this country by 2014. The majority of the workforce, and of most customer segments, will be mobile enabled in the near future.

That’s high, even compared to more developed countries. Last August, Pew Research reported that one in four American adults owned a tablet computer, with penetration expected to hit one in three by the start of this year. Over 50% of US adults own either a smartphone or tablet or both, and the penetration rates of both are still growing. In the UK, smartphone ownership is estimated around 60%, with tablet ownership around one in five.

With the numbers skewed towards professionals, the penetration of mobile computing in the workforce is high enough that it is now a dominant force. Most working professionals now own at least one mobile computing device. And a growing number are coming to assume that their productivity applications will embrace mobility with the same vigour.


The rapid adoption of mobile devices is having profound effects on businesses. In some industries, the change has come faster and harder than others – of those smartphoneand tablet-wielding Americans, two thirds use them for consuming news and other media. For every part of the media value chain, from content producers and publishers to advertisers to readership analysts, the change has come lightning fast. But other industries will follow suit: any vertical market that has embraced the Web is ripe for disruption in the same way. Salesforce.com took the CRM market by surprise once – this time the same vendors are moving aggressively onto mobile, knowing that it can and will happen again.

Surface TabletSurface Tablet

The cloud is a major facilitator in this, but the SaaS model of the cloud was only the first stage. The next generation of mobile applications is redefining styles of work, driven by changes in interfaces and integration. That will be the key for the next phase of mobile applications.

This is putting IT departments and organisations as a whole under increased pressure from several sides. The mobile-friendly “bring your own device” (BYOD) trend is adding complexity, management headaches, and concerns – BYOD is very much front of mind for many organisations, and it will remain there for the foreseeable future. But this is only one part of the picture.

Another is internal usage. Employees are increasingly mobile-capable. They have smartphones and tablets, and are coming to take for granted remote access to their data and applications. Line of business applications – financials, ERP, CRM, HR, helpdesk and the rest – are increasingly being developed to extend specific functionality to mobile devices. This is a key point – a new generation of applications is emerging, which is strongly focused on extending core functions to mobile devices, not entire systems. Putting a Web skin on a complex application is very much last decade’s approach to SaaS – software vendors have realised that mobile devices, limited by small screens, but empowered by tightly knit software ecosystems, deserve unique treatments.

Even that is not the full extent of the challenge. Customers, too, are increasingly using mobile technology to engage with online services. You are more likely to receive a complaint through a mobile channel from a dissatisfied customer on the spot, than when he has had time to go home and think about it before sending an e-mail or making a call. E-commerce is moving quickly to embrace mobile interfaces, and not by just re-skinning Web sites. Just as a Web presence became a no-brainer for all but the most insular organisations, so too will support for mobile apps.

Not every organisation will need custom-written mobile apps for every platform, of course. And many will sink huge cost into building apps for no gain. But careful introspection is called for, considering the many avenues that customers, employees and partners could improve their experience, productivity and business value through mobile channels.

But where the greatest disruption is coming is in the online application space. The SaaS wave moved applications on to the Web, and facilitated greater reach and integration, while posing stiff challenges for software vendors. Web front-ends sprouted like mushrooms and vendors fought for market share against the backdrop of the browser wars. That settled down, and today it’s more common than not for enterprise applications to ship with browser interfaces, built on standards to ensure maximum portability. All that happened in the space of not much more than a decade, but now it’s all changing again.


The looming question is that of platform dominance. Faced with escalating development and support costs for every additional mobile platform, software vendors must make tough decisions – or gambles – over which environments to support. Apple and Android are almost default choices now, with the majority market share split between them. But then there’s , tipped to gain mind- and market-share in the enterprise segment, and BlackBerry, fallen from grace, but still widely used in business environments, and with a new OS coming to the party. Four chief contenders, with a handful of bit players occupying niches on the sides.

For a time, it seemed that HTML5 would be a mobile panacea – just develop one new interface and extend it to all devices – but this has turned out to be mistaken. Although HTML5 has huge potential, software developers are consistently reporting that the best mobile experience to be had is through developing native applications for each platform, taking advantage of features not available through Web browsers. It is telling that several software firms have separately reported the same thing – Facebook notably backed away from HTML5, but many others have too – showing that we are in a fast-moving phase where wheel-reinvention is still common. We are still finding our feet in this mobile space, and some incumbents may falter.

You will find yourself making strategic decisions over what platforms to support and what services to support on them, and asking the same questions of your software and service providers in turn. That question should not be a technical one: more relevant is the question: “how will this mobile app benefit a business process?”

The major concern will be the overhead in retooling application logic, redesigning interfaces, rewriting code, and then the ongoing costs of support and training. Going from a unified Web interface, to a Web interface supplemented by four different iterations of several point solutions? That’s messy.

For now, tablets are unlikely to replace PCs. One common criticism of tablets is of the form factor. Lacking a keyboard, mouse and large screen, tablets are not effective replacements for many enterprise applications. This is true, but misses the point – apps are extending key features in new interfaces, helping users interact with data in specific, very high-value, ways. Dashboards with instant access to alerts put managers on top of the most critical issues, for example – the drill-down data can wait for later. Users find themselves spending more time with the tablet, simply because the interfaces are built from the ground up to deliver a more streamlined experience.

But the PC? That’s not going anywhere, at least not yet. And if tablets are not replacing PCs, then they are simply adding a layer of cost and complexity to IT operations and business applications.

Incidentally, the Surface tablet, with its notebook-like capabilities, is an effort to reshape this part of the market into ’s mould, to give it a competitive advantage against strong existing players. It may work – buying one device is cheaper and possibly more efficient than purchasing both notebook and tablet. On the other hand, it may fail to deliver the best of either – time will tell.

Interestingly, the very same trends are happening in the social networking space – there too the overwhelming adoption of social networks is putting pressure on IT professionals to accommodate social applications, to extend services to include social networks, and to integrate social data into line of business applications like CRM and HR. Every part of the stack is being affected to some degree.

The numbers tell the tale: just as the current generation takes e-mail and the Web for granted, the next will look to mobility, focused apps, and social integration. Even the most staid enterprise application will not escape this revolution. Are you ready?