How tablets will disrupt desktop managed service delivery

This content is 14 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I’ve been watching the tweets from this week’s Gartner Symposium with interest and it looks as though there is a lot of interesting stuff happening out in Cannes this week but I was rather surprised to see this tweet, from Graeme Hackland:

“#gartnersym consensus in the room seems to be that the iPad is either a consumer product or an executive toy. There is a lot of potential!”

I wasn’t sure if Graeme was disagreeing with the rest of the room (after all, he did say that the iPad has potential) or if he was agreeing with the concensus view but, within seconds of retweeting his comment, I had multiple responses to suggest that many will disagree (and not just consumers and executives – my followers consist of a mixture of IT administrators and architects, journalists, analysts and even some business end users.

It made me think of a paper that I’ve been writing and, as it’s not been published yet, I’ll share some of the current draft here…

Over the last few months, there has been a frenzy of interest in small-form-factor “next generation” tablets as Apple first announced and then launched the iPad with other device manufacturers producing competing devices running a plethora of operating systems. So what does this resurgence in tablet computing mean for enterprise IT? Or is it just a consumer-focused irrelevance?

A stagnant market

Tablet PCs are not new – I know of at least one OEM that has been producing tablets in a variety of form factors for almost 20 years and Microsoft has included tablet support in Windows since 2002. Furthermore, they are a niche technology and, although manufacturers cite the form factor as providing the features of a notebook PC with the flexibility of a notepad and pen, the market for such devices have been limited. Whilst a variety of form factors have been available, many devices are convertible notebook/tablet PCs, running Microsoft Windows on standard PC hardware.

Those who see the potential of tablet PCs cite great advantages in their ability to take notes and generally enhance office-based productivity but the reality is that tablet PCs cost more than a standard notebook and that the weight of the device, combined with a lack of “instant on” capability seriously inhibits adoption. In addition, Windows-based tablets make use of a stylus, with multitouch capabilities being a fairly recent development. Converting written input to computer-readable text (e.g. when entering an address into a web browser) has also placed constraints on device usability. In short, the market for tablet PCs has stagnated.

It’s a tablet, not a PC

Despite what the consumer-focused press might lead us to believe, Apple is not a technological innovator – the graphical user interface (GUI), digital music players, smartphones, and tablet computers all existed in some form before Apple brought products to market. But Apple has been exceptionally good at refining and popularising these items – in an extremely convincing manner, largely due to their attention to the design of the device, making them extremely accessible to non-technical users. Microsoft Windows may be the dominant GUI-driven PC operating system but Apple‟s iPod and iPhone dominate in their respective markets – and the iPad may well be their breakthrough tablet device, certainly if early sales figures are to be believed.

Modular desktop modelFor 25 years, we‟ve been using personal computers at work and at play. Over that time we seen many changes to the ways in which we use these devices and it‟s become apparent that the biggest single factor in driving down the cost of ownership is efficient desktop device management. But, rather than being about thin clients, or a virtualised desktop – or indeed about standardising an any single desktop delivery model – the key to desktop device management is the separation of the desktop into component modules that can easily be swapped out: hardware; operating system; core applications; specialist applications; user data. It makes little difference whether the “desktop” runs on a PC, or a phone, or virtualised in the datacentre – as long as users can access their data using the applications that they know and as long as the IT department can manage the device.

Desktop service provision is changing – business end users are asking why they can’t do the same things on their work computers that they do at home: indeed, why do they need separate “home” and “work” PCs? The fusion of personal and professional computing is an entirely separate discussion but many organisations are looking seriously at Bring Your Own Computer (BYOC) schemes, generally with some form of secure corporate desktop (perhaps virtualised) existing alongside consumer-focused IT (personal e-mail, multimedia applications, etc.). And, if all that‟s required is a connection to a remote desktop somewhere on the corporate network, perhaps it’s time to consider whether a PC is the right device.

That‟s where tablets come in. Whether they run iOS, Android, Windows or something else (e.g. WebOS), tablet devices are just end user computing devices – they take care of the hardware and operating system layers of our desktop service model and, as long as appropriate applications can be provided, end users can access their data as they would on a PC. What Apple looks to be doing, just as they did for the smartphone market, is legitimising the market for tablets. They haven‟t invented a new market, but they have focused on making tablet devices attractive to consumers and, by extension, those devices are finding their way into enterprise computing.

What’s interesting about Apple is that, even though they were late to enter the smartphone market, Apple has succeeded in pitching their device as a highly desirable, premium product and they are now looking to do the same with the iPad, drawing on their reputation for quality, desirability and ease of use.

Apple’s iPad is not a smartphone; and nor is it a PC. It has features in common with both of those devices but it’s an entirely new class of device. Too heavy and too large to slip in a pocket, but small enough and light enough, with a long enough battery life to allow mobile computing to take off in a way it has not previously. The iPad, and similar tablets, present a new method of accessing the corporate desktop – one that addresses issues of device ownership, mobility, and the consumerisation of IT.

Comparing Apples with… Android? Windows?

Apple’s iPad may be the tablet that‟s got everyone talking but it’s probably not the one to be watching. Just as Apple has focused on premium devices for personal computing and smartphones, the iPad is a premium tablet and there are many PC manufacturers with tablets (more accurately, slates) in development or coming to market. In addition, Apple‟s decision not to support Adobe Flash has limited the number of websites that the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad can access – and could be one of the reasons that Apple is losing ground to competitors in the smartphone market. For some, Google’s Android smartphone operating system is an attractive proposition on a tablet – Android has seen massive growth over the last year – but Microsoft is sticking to its view that Windows is the operating system and that slates are just a new form factor. Whilst Windows 7 includes touch capabilities, Microsoft’s view is clearly focused on the enterprise market – their new Windows Phone operating system has an innovative new user interface that could be perfect for tablets, but lacks the application support that Microsoft is hoping will allow them to remain dominant in personal computing. For the time being at least, after cancelling a dual-screen tablet codenamed Courier, Microsoft is pinning its hopes on tablets running Windows – but they need to convince their partners, and customers (enterprise and consumer) that they need Microsoft too as the traditional Windows on Intel PC marketplace fragments.

Why are tablets suddenly so interesting?

Aside from a general trend towards the consumerisation of enterprise IT, next generation tablets such as the iPad present new computing opportunities that do not work with traditional PCs – and whilst Gartner is still predicting growth in the PC segment, they expect mobile PCs to account for nearly 70% of PC shipments by 2012:

“Apple’s iPad is just one of many new devices coming to market that will change the entire PC ecosystem and overlap it with the mobile phone industry. This will create significantly more opportunities for PC vendors as well as significantly more threats”

For a while, netbooks looked as though they may be successful, with their low cost making them attractive as second PCs for mobile use. That phenomenon was short-lived though and, with Gartner‟s prediction that up to 40% of PCs will be replaced by hosted virtual desktops by 2013, tablets suddenly seem attractive as highly portable, low-cost, general purpose computing devices. Gartner are not alone in this view either – Forrester is estimating that tablets will account for 20% of PC sales by 2015 and IDC is expecting Apple to sell 48 million iPads by 2014 whilst fuelling a broader market for next generation tablets. In part, the success of smartphones such as the Apple iPhone and the plethora of Android-based handsets have blazed a trail that simplifies the adoption process for next generation tablets within the enterprise.

How does this affect desktop managed services?

Traditional PCs are not going away any time soon – for most enterprises there will be a mix of devices according to the computing needs of the end users. What will change (and is changing already) is the type of device that is used to access the desktop. Rather than taking a notebook PC from place to place in the device-centric manner that we do today, enterprises will adapt to human-centric computing models, with end users increasingly accessing their desktop from a variety of devices – perhaps starting out with a smartphone on the way to work; switching to a hosted virtual desktop in the office; using a tablet during meetings; and perhaps using the family PC to finish up some work at home in the evening, with local desktop virtualisation opening up new options for secure computing away from the corporate network. That‟s just one scenario though: with an increasing variety of tablets entering the marketplace and BYOC models becoming commonplace, the tablet could be an end user device that’s used to stay in touch whilst mobile, docked with a full-size keyboard (maybe a screen too) in the office for access to a corporate desktop, and which also provides access to the personal media (music, video, photographs, e-books), social networking and casual gaming that is increasingly part of our digital lifestyles?

If Gartner’s predictions come true and 40% of PCs are replaced with hosted virtual desktops, “thin client” applications like Citrix Receiver can be used to access a full Windows desktop from a tablet (it’s also possible to do this with a simple remote desktop application using the RDP or VNC protocols – although probably not desirable in an enterprise context). There is no mouse (something that Windows and Linux desktops are designed to make use of), but touch support is present, and it‟s also possible to use an external keyboard or stylus if necessary. Tablets won’t work for everyone, but they may provide the perfect balance between usability and portability for many users, with capabilities including instant startup and avoiding the physical barrier that notebook PCs present in meeting room scenarios.

Another advantage of tablet operating systems such as Apple iOS or Google Android is the “curated computing” approach. Forrester defines curated computing as “a mode of computing where choice is constrained to deliver less complex, more relevant experiences”.

In effect, the end user’s ability to access the device is constrained (they can install applications and adapt preferences, but can’t generally make low-level operating system tweaks) allowing greater levels of control to be achieved by content publishers who select content and functionality that is appropriate to the form factor. In contrast, running Windows on a tablet allows the end user to run commands, connect easily to peripheral devices, save files locally – and, crucially in Microsoft’s view, provides access to the same applications that are used elsewhere in the enterprise.

For businesses that adapt the Windows approach, the concept of enterprise application stores (e.g Citrix Dazzle), combined with application virtualisation, is attractive as this approach provides a degree of end-user self-service – improving responsiveness and potentially reducing costs. Meanwhile, those who adopt a curated computing approach still have options for installing applications without going via public application stores (e.g. Apple’s iPhone Developer Enterprise Programme, or Google Android’s ability to allow applications from an unknown source).

There are those who have concerns about security (e.g. device encryption, multiple user profiles, etc.) but Forrester believe that Apple’s devices now give enterprises “enough security options to […] say ‘yes’ rather than ‘no'”, noting that “some require higher levels of authentication assurance, resistance to attack, manageability, and logging than the [platform] can provide”. Similarly, other platforms (e.g. Android, Windows, WebOS, etc.) require assessment based on regulatory profiles and risk exposure.

Enterprise readiness is another concern. Quoting a Burton Group analyst:

“[a next generation tablet] does provide a ‘fundamentally transformative computing experience’ and it ‘will meet the needs of many business users’, but is it an enterprise computing platform?”

The real point here is not about whether tablets can be managed in an enterprise as a traditional desktop would, but that they are gateway devices to the corporate desktop, enabling BYOC models to be adopted. Using a tablet, end users can be provided with access to enterprise applications in a desktop-as-a-service model (e.g. as a hosted shared desktop, or as a virtual desktop), whilst the Internet, corporate e-mail, etc. are accessible in the same manner as for a mobile device today.

Wrapping up

Next generation tablets – not just the Apple iPad, but tablets running a variety of operating systems – will fundamentally impact the way in which desktop managed services are delivered, opening new opportunities for BYOC schemes and providing flexibility in end-user access to corporate applications and data. Questions over security and enterprise readiness will continue to be asked; however I strongly beleive that tablets are part of an overall mix of end user computing devices within a broader desktop access strategy.

Whilst I was writing this post, Graeme challenged me to name five things beyond email and web browsing that make the iPad a business tool. I hope I’ve done more than that: it’s not about individual features but about the way in which next generation tablets (such as the iPad) will (are?) disrupting desktop services provision.

5 thoughts on “How tablets will disrupt desktop managed service delivery

  1. Interesting read, Mark. I guess network security that uses interrogation (like W2008 NAP) will be critical in isolating BYOC host OS’s from internal systems while still providing the user with access to corporate systems – assuming that the user is deployed with a VM that will have free access (via NAP) to the corporate network.

  2. Mark, there’s very little I disagree with in this blog. My comments about the iPad were very specific, your points on tablets are valid and on the whole I agree with you.

    Specifically on the iPad then: we were discussing if the iPad is advancing productivity or distracting the enterprise. Everyone in the room had interest in iPads within the enterprise in some way (planning to support or already supporting), so this was not an Apple bashing session!

    There were a few attendees whose companies were using iPhone/iPad Apps for business requirements (almost exclusively aimed at consumers not the internal users). Email was the overwhelming business App for why they and/or their users have purchased iPads (along with internet browsing). Few companies were providing them, users were purchasing their own. My impression is that most of the iPads being bought were either by those who love new technology or those who wanted a fashion statement (which boots immediately and has a simple user interface).

    The levels of control that Apple enforce over the App store, and the inability of IT departments to manage the devices, I believe, are a limiting factor in terms of corporate acceptability

    The “potential” I referred to in my tweet was indeed regarding making use of them as a thin client, one of the attendees was doing this very effectively in their organisation (seamless VPN and access to corporate Apps)

    I’m well aware that the adoption of iPads by enterprise IT departments is inevitable, because of hype and effective marketing (why else would so many people who didn’t know what they really were, wanted one on the day Apple announced it )

    So I accept your argument that tablets are serious business tools, I just think the iPad specifically needs a little more time to mature

    Best wishes
    Graeme Hackland

  3. Hi Graeme
    First up – thanks for taking the time out to respond – I really appreciate it as I know what a busy conference schedule is like!

    It’s interesting to hear more of the background behind your tweet and there are certainly some interesting observations there – thanks for sharing them.

    My personal view is that, even though tablets have been around for 20-odd years, the real reason that everyone is talking about the iPad is a lack of competition (in that form factor). That should change soon, but I agree a little maturity wouldn’t go amiss (after all, we’re talking about a version one product here).

    Enjoy the rest of the conference, and I shall follow your tweets with interest.

    All the best, Mark

  4. @Aidan – Yep I reckon that NAP/NAC will be critical to implementing BYOC. There are many technical/architectural models that can be followed (secure VM on uncontrolled desktop; client hypervisor with secure/insecure desktops; uncontrolled desktop with enterprise application store, etc.) but that’s a whole different post… maybe I should think about writing that one soon… ^MW

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