Mathias On Mobility: Will Tablets Replace PCs?

Tablets fit nicely into the brave new world of emerging cloud-based enterprise environments, shrinking IT budgets, and the general consumerization of information technology.
Last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was abuzz about tablets, with on the order of 80 new models shown. While many of these products are, granted, very cool, and many will likely prove quite useful in the enterprise, I’m having a hard time understanding all the hoopla here

Tablets as we know them today can trace their roots back to the mid-80s, with the introduction of GRiD Systems' GRiDPad -- clunky, to be sure by modern standards, but the die was indeed cast. Such industry heavyweights as Symbol Technologies (acquired by Motorola, and today a big tablet player) and Telxon (acquired, oddly enough, by Symbol) were building popular tablets for industrial applications back in the '90s. These products were expensive, at least in part due to the requirement for rugged construction, and they weren't exactly easy to use, more often equipped with custom code and used in vertical markets.

But anyone who saw an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation will remember the little tablets that were used by officers for so many routine functions -- not a sheet of paper in sight, and, if I recall, no PCs, either.

Which bring us to the question for today: Will tablets replace the PC as we know it? The answer: Yes, and to a great degree, but not entirely.

I've been less than a fan of the PC for many years. I go back to DOS 1.0, and I've been amazed over the years how the PC became complex enough to challenge the operating expense budgets of more than a few companies. Complexity, after all, breeds cost.

While the capital cost of the PC itself went down, especially considering the amazing improvements in hardware price/performance, the OS got more expensive, more difficult to use, and thus more expensive to deploy and support. Part of this has to do with the fundamental bone-headed nature of the very architecture of Windows, and Microsoft's various missteps (Windows ME and Vista come to mind here) that just heaped on cost with little (read: no) benefit.

In disgust, I personally switched to the Mac. While the Mac costs more to acquire, its operating costs are far lower, resulting in a much lower total cost of ownership. This, as I've noted before, is the most important theme in IT today -- increasing bang for the buck.

I'm convinced that cloud computing is the key to getting IT costs in line with overall corporate financial posture today, but going hand in hand with that is the relatively limited (read: less complex) software environments of tablets. We really don't need a full-blown OS on clients anymore; indeed, such just gets in the way with cost, complexity, and irritatingly long boot times.

The key challenge, I believe, will be the availability of a broadly-accepted business-centric tablet. Let's face it -- the iPad is a relatively-closed big iPod accompanied by absolutely amazing marketing. Granted, one can configure it for enterprise use, but it wasn't designed for such, and most of those zillion apps are of little interest to corporations.

That's why so many of the announcements at CES were significant -- everyone knows the tablet is going to find a home in the enterprise, and, in the process, take a big bite out of PC sales. But corporate tablets must be, first and foremost, configurable business tools, not music players. Don't get me wrong; Apple is slowly responding, but the enterprise tablet market is going to be the Wild West for a while regardless. And thus the PC will fade, slowly, over time, eventually being reduced to the thin-client/Windows-terminal/etc. model that first surfaced, again, many years ago. The key hardware advantages of the PC -- a keyboard and a larger display, and maybe in some cases I/O ports and local expandability -- will retain some of their appeal, and the software environment of Windows will survive a while longer to support all those legacy apps.

But tablets do indeed fit quite nicely into the brave new world of emerging cloud-based enterprise IT environments, shrinking IT budgets (hey, no spending on clients required at all; just bring your own tablet to work), and the general consumerization of IT overall. They're here to stay.


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Craig Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile advisory firm based in Ashland, MA. Craig is an internationally recognized expert on wireless communications and mobile computing technologies. He is a well-known industry analyst and frequent speaker at industry conferences and trade shows.