Up until now, this tablet business has been nothing but fun and games. It's about time it got serious, and several market forces are combining to make it so.
Schools and businesses have begun to take tablets, primarily Apple's market-dominating iPad, seriously.
More than 1 in 5 businesses plan to buy tablets for their employees by the middle of the year, according to a ChangeWave Research survey this month. And in the wake of Apple's digital textbook crusade in January, school districts across the country plan to purchase iPads for their students. When they do, it often will be to replace not only paper textbooks, but instead of classroom PCs, laptops or netbooks.
Tablets, sometimes referred to as media tablets, up until now have been largely consumer devices aimed at media consumption: watching movies or videos, listening to music, reading news or books, or checking e-mail, Twitter or Facebook posts.
When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduced the popular Kindle Fire tablet last fall, he referred to it as primarily a delivery service for Amazon's digital content. That's why Amazon is willing to lose money on every Kindle Fire it sells, as it believes it will more than make that up with the content Kindle Fire users will buy.
But for whatever reason, people like to bring their gadgets to work, and IT departments have had to accommodate this “bring your own device” movement. As that has occurred, the potential usefulness of tablets in business have become more apparent.
Both Microsoft and Salesforce.com, for instance, have announced full-blown customer-relations management apps to access CRM systems commonly used by businesses. The credit-card app company Square has just introduced a combined card-reading device and app that turns an iPad into a point-of-sale terminal for small businesses, complete with inventory control and marketing analytics.
When the new iPad was introduced earlier this month, many industry analysts were looking for evidence of greater emphasis on productivity, whether through better input options like keyboards, handwriting translation or dictation to full-blown productivity suites like an iPad version of Microsoft Office.
Apple did introduce the ability to do dictation, and announced it had beefed up its own iWork office suite to take advantage of the new iPad, but nothing was forthcoming on Microsoft Office.
The news Web site The Daily reported last month that Microsoft was on the verge of introducing an iPad version of Office, but Microsoft denied it. In the meantime, OnLive.com introduced a cloud-based version of the suite that iPad or Android tablet users could access through a client app. Microsoft was less than happy with this development and has since warned that OnLive may be violating its software licensing agreement.
Some see Microsoft either delaying or not producing an iPad app because it would cannibalize its efforts to turn Windows into a tablet-friendly operating system that can bridge the gap between consumers and business. When Windows 8 launches later this year, a tablet-friendly Windows 8 version of Office is expected to launch around the same time.
At the annual CeBIT international business IT conference in Hanover, Germany, earlier this month, Microsoft released a free public preview version of Windows 8 with much emphasis on how well it integrated tablets into large corporate IT environments. With the giant head start by Apple's iPad and its Android competitors, that angle is the best hope for Microsoft and its chip-making partner, Intel, to get in on tablet fever.
Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Lenovo, Samsung and Nokia are among the electronics manufacturing giants who have announced they will be producing Windows 8 tablets this year. When they do, expect those tablets to emphasize business-friendly features.
Several, in fact, that are to be introduced under Intel's Ultrabook superlight laptop category, will have the form of a laptop but with a detachable screen that becomes a tablet. Those computers will be ideal to take advantage of Windows 8's ability to switch from a tablet interface, which Microsoft calls Metro, to a traditional desktop interface closer in resemblance to older versions of Windows.
The introduction of Windows 8 will put pressure on Apple and Android manufacturers, already beginning to duke it out in the business world, to respond in kind. By the end of this year, tablets will mean business.