Corporate IT - the future of mobile devices
corporate mobile IT
About 18 months ago I started writing a book – Cracking Mobile Native Development – and in the introduction I went through and listed a bunch of things that had changed between the time that I submitted the proposal to the publisher and the time the book went to press. That period was about nine months and there were a lot of changes – everything from ‘the iPad didn’t exist’ to ‘the book was supposed to include Symbian, because when I started this it still seemed relevant’.
The imminent arrival of the Chromebook, as well as comments from Intel with regards to Windows 8 has made me crack out the tarot PCMCIA cards and have a think about where things might go. Let’s peer into the mists of (future) time together.
Windows 8 System-on-a-Chip (Soc)
Microsoft has had a number of problems over the past few years, mostly from its friends in Cupertino. The iPhone has eaten its lunch in so far as Windows-based smartphones running Windows Mobile is concerned and Android has been tucking into its dinner. Ironically, Microsoft invented the smartphone, having Windows Mobile-powered devices on the market long before the iPhone. The other problem that Microsoft has is that Apple has invented an entirely new market – namely proper, workable, usable tablets. (I use ‘tablets’ here distinct from ‘tablet PCs’, which are basically just a Windows PC shoved into a clever box, which no-one ever found that interesting.) Now the world is patiently waiting for someone to give Apple some decent competition, given that tablet format computing clearly works so well.
The obvious – and I think wrong – view with regards to competition for the iPad is that it will come in the form of Android tablets. My own view is that Windows 8 running on ARM will come along and possibly, even probably, eat Apple’s tablet market lunch. Here’s why.
The iPad works because it is a beautiful device for consuming information. It’s just about OK for creating information, but it’s a bit rough for anything other than a few notes or a quick email. It works because it’s cheap (really, £500 is cheap), light and the battery is phenomenal. But if you take Windows 7 and cram it into a clever box, you don’t get something that cheap or light or with a good battery, plus it’s noisy, plus the ‘touch’ experience on it is a little rough. Windows 7 is a bit of a dinosaur over in tablet-land. It’s just a hot, clunky, expensive laptop that doesn’t have a proper keyboard.
The problem with Windows 7 is that it only runs on Intel’s x86 class processors. Although the Atom processor from Intel gets around some of the power problems (the first wave of Chromebooks will run on Atom and the previously popular netbooks were typically Atom-powered), the x86 architecture is still too resource-hungry in terms of memory consumption, and also in terms of complexity of supporting circuitry, compared to the ARM architecture chips like the A4 and A5 used in the iPad and iPhone. One part of the story of Windows 8 is taking full-on Windows and rejigging it so that it will run on ARM chips similar in nature to the A4 and A5, but give you a proper Windows experience. This would mean that you could (very, very hypothetically – the following is just an illustration) rip the chips off of an iPad’s circuit board, put them back together in a new order and run Windows 8 on it. If you do that, you don’t get a hot, keyboard-less, noisy laptop. What you get is a proper, tablet-format computer that happens to run Windows and (your mileage will almost certainly vary wildly) run full-on, proper, PC applications.
If you manage an IT department, you should be extremely excited about this. A Windows 8 tablet on ARM will be a ‘proper’ PC. It’ll plug into your existing domain controllers and security architecture. It’ll be manageable just like a normal desktop or laptop PC. You’ll be able to build inhouse native applications and run it on them easily. More to the point, it’s likely to be sufficiently good that your staff will be happy to use them rather than their iPads because, after all, in the world of software design, it’s about what it does, not about what it is. So long as the software works for them and doesn’t get in their way, there will be adoption.
What about Android tablets?
This author also doesn’t see much future in Android-based tablets in the corporate world. (Nor do I see a future for the BlackBerry PlayBook for entirely different reasons that I shan’t go into here.) There are three devices on the market at the moment, that are interesting: the Motorola Xoom, the original Samsung Galaxy Tab and the new Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Indeed, the 10.1-inch edition of the Galaxy Tab is receiving rave reviews, some even touting it as the first decent challenger to the iPad.
But for corporate IT, I see a market that is largely confused. If you had to go out and buy 500 tablets, which Android-based tablet would you choose? I would suggest that no tablet would be a safe choice. I don’t think anyone would blame such an IT director for buying 500 iPads and I personally think he’d be applauded for buying 500 Windows 8 ARM-based tablets when they hit the market, but I feel it remains unclear as to what is the safe choice so far as Android goes.
If you look at the market for smartphones and how Android is challenging iPhone, I think it’s sensible to extrapolate that Android will make some headway into the consumer market for tablets. It’d be a rare individual that would buy a Windows 8 ARM-based tablet for home use – that individual would almost certainly have to work in IT and do the sort of job that you and I do. We know that iPads are bought in droves and we also know that post-purchase surveys show deep satisfaction, and I can see clever marketing and compelling devices driving a few key Android tablets too. But I don’t see a world where the IT department is inundated with staff bringing Android tables into use at work.
In summary, today we have a situation where Microsoft does not have a good story to answer the iPad. I believe that Windows 8 running on low-power, uncomplicated circuitry like ARM chips will let it write an extremely compelling story that’s appealing to corporate IT. So next year when Windows 8 hits RTM and people start putting it into clever boxes, that’ll be the time when the market really gets shaken up. I don’t personally see a story for Android-based tablets in business within those timeframes, but I do see consumers being interested in Android as an alternative to iPad, perhaps even eventually becoming the dominant player, and Apple will return to its usual position as the ‘premium’ brand.
Matthew Baxter-Reynolds is an independent software development consultant, trainer and author based in the UK specialising in mobile technology solutions. He can be contacted via LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/mbrit