Down To Business: Don't Dismiss The iPad And Other Tablets As Just Hype

There's no ignoring the iPad's market momentum, and if you think these devices aren't going corporate already, you haven't been paying attention
Depending on whom you talk to, the iPad and its emerging tablet rivals are either the end of the PC as we know it or just nice little marginal gadgets. They'll either transform how business people consume, share, and process information, or they'll end up with the Newton and the Network Computer among the glorified technology devices whose time, at least in the enterprise, never came.

In unveiling a thinner, lighter, more powerful iPad on March 2, Apple CEO Steve Jobs talked repeatedly about this being the "post-PC era." Whenever anyone mentions a post-anything era--whether it's post-PC, post-classical, post-modern, post-human, or post-grape nuts--my BS detector flares up. Still, CIOs dismiss tablets at their companies' peril.

For starters, there's no ignoring the sheer volume of iPads Apple has sold since introducing the first such device a year ago. At the end of 2010, Apple had sold 14.8 million iPads, and analysts predict it will sell another 5 million to 6 million this quarter alone--most of them to first-time buyers.

If you think those devices haven't been pervading enterprises, you haven't been paying attention. Walk the aisles at trade shows, observe salespeople in the field or professionals on the plane or train, and you'll see them toting (and doing serious work on) their iPads. Some 24% of the 97 IT infrastructure organizations recently surveyed by the Corporate Executive Board have already deployed iPads, another 6% plan to do so this year, and 3% in 2012. Sure, that means 67% say they have no plans for deploying the Apple tablets--but this isn't a one-vendor/product market anymore.

More than 50 manufacturers will offer close to 100 tablet models in the next year or so--the Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab, RIM PlayBook, and HP TouchPad among them. Will they replace PCs and notebooks for most corporate computing? Probably not. But neither has the smartphone, and it's not dismissed as a flash in the pan.

Furthermore, IT organizations are warming to the form factor. In a Corporate Executive Board survey in 2009, the consumer technology that received the lowest score for "enterprise value" was the netbook, but its survey a year later revealed that more than 60% of companies either had deployed or planned to deploy netbooks (including tablets) by the end of that year. "Netbooks found 'niche' uses across the enterprise, typically in response to demand not normally visible to centralized infrastructure organizations," according to a December 2010 CEB white paper. "As information management and 'knowledge worker enablement' rise as sources of enterprise value, more of these hidden demand patterns are likely--such that adoption assessments for technologies like the iPad could swiftly change."

While enterprise IT skeptics scoff at the thousands of iPad apps now available as mostly unserious, understand that this product is only a year old. Meantime, enterprise developer ecosystems will also rise around Android, BlackBerry, and WebOS tablets. Microsoft is way behind in optimizing Windows for tablet devices, but it'll be a major player soon enough.

In a recent InformationWeek Analytics survey of 551 business technology professionals, the top four barriers cited to using tablets (in lieu of notebooks) were lack of enterprise apps (38%), security concerns (34%), the lack of a physical keyboard (23%), and inadequate or expensive management software (21%).

When asked about their organizations' general approach to consumer-centric new technologies such as iPads, the largest percentage of survey respondents (29%) said they're "proactive," while 13% said they're "accepting," 23% are "neutral, "19% are "resistant," and 16% are "strict." Interestingly, when asked if they have better technology at home than in the office, 52% said yes, while 22% said about the same, and 26% said no.

Perhaps IT pros are more willing to consider innovative new consumer technologies than people think they are.