The Tablet Conundrum

By all accounts the tablet market is one of the fastest growing segments in consumer technology. Recent growth in consumer demand for tablets have even led research firm IDC to increase its 2012 forecast for tablet shipments. According to IDC research analyst Tom Mainelli, “Tablets continue to captivate consumers, and as the market shifts toward smaller, more mobile screen sizes and lower prices points, we expect demand to accelerate in the fourth quarter and beyond." While no one would deny the popularity of the segment, the tablet form factor still presents several challenges, particularly for enterprise, as it seeks to become the dominant computing platform.

A few weeks ago, I got to spend some quality time with Windows 8. Despite finding the OS to be a bit confusing at first, navigating Windows 8 was significantly easier on a touch-enabled device, particularly when using the tablet-centric Metro UI. While not all Windows 8 laptops are touch enabled, clearly Microsoft is betting that the Metro UI is the future of its Windows platform, so much so that the company is integrating the touch-friendly UI across its entire product line, and making it the basis of their tablet only Windows RT. Microsoft believes one’s tablet experience should mirror one’s desktop experience. Taken together with the ever growing iOS-ification of Mac OS X and the aforementioned surge in tablet sales, and this sentiment would appear to be correct. But it is this one size fits all approach that presents the greatest challenge for tablet makers.

So far, nothing that I’ve seen from Apple, Google, or Microsoft that has convinced me a tablet interface is up to the task of meeting the needs of enterprise. Sure, it sounds great to only have to carry around an iPad, rather than a full laptop, but how practical is a tablet for getting work done? On any given day, I'm usually running two browsers (Internet Explorer and Chrome), each with multiple tabs, at least two instances of Windows Explorer, three to four PowerPoint decks, Word, MS Lync, and Outlook. I am able to quickly jump between apps, taking information from one to use in another. When I need to view two apps at once, I simply drag the apps to opposite ends of the screen in Windows 7, and they automatically re-size. The key here is the ability to multitask; not simply running two or three separate apps concurrently, but running two or three apps at the same time to accomplish one goal. In other words, I am working on one PowerPoint deck, but need information from the Web, my notes in Word, and images from other decks to complete it. Currently iOS, Android, and Metro aren't designed for this level of multitasking. The Windows Metro interface comes closest with its ability to run two apps side-by-side in a ⅓ to ⅔ ratio, but even that is severely limited.

It is not just a tablet's inability to perform true multitasking that limits its enterprise appeal, but also the general tablet form factor. Ever since the introduction of the HDTV, consumers have been enamored with the 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. Everything from our phones, to our laptops and desktop monitors are all predominantly in this aspect ratio. While great for most cases, 16:9 has proven rather awkward on larger tablets (9+ inches diagonally), being somewhat difficult to hold in landscape, and unwieldy in portrait. While smaller 7-inch devices don't suffer as much from being 16:9, their screen sizes are too small to display the amount of information most enterprise users would require. The iPad seems to hit a sweet spot, being larger than a 7-inch device, but not having the tradeoffs of the 16:9 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, even 9.7 inches is too small of a screen for most enterprise users, who again, would typically need to view multiple pieces of information at once.

There is no doubt in my mind that tablets are the future of computing. But as they currently stand, tablets are more akin to a television in that they are a lean-back experience. Until tablet OS’ are truly capable of multitasking, and tablet vendors find the right form factor to balance portability with productivity, the tablet’s impact on enterprise will be relegated to being a second screen; something one can use for presentations, to check email, and take notes, but not truly a work machine.