And how your company can take advantage of them.
Some people say that Apple is the most innovative company in high-tech today. But despite playing in an industry that worships startups and market creation, Apple has never been a First Mover.
The Apple II wasn't the first PC, and numerous digital music players preceded the iPod. The iPhone debuted in 2007, many years after other smartphone players such as Microsoft (Windows Mobile), Palm (Treo), Nokia (Symbian) and of course, Research In Motion (BlackBerry) had seemingly entrenched themselves.
With the iPad tablet, Apple practically spotted its rivals a 20-year lead. Defined as a computing device that forgoes the usual keyboard as its main input method, numerous vendors have unsuccessfully pursued this Holy Grail.
The Palm Pilot was a hit on its 1996 debut, but succeeding versions fell flat, as users tired of its limited capabilities and the need to scribble in Palm's esoteric alphabet.
Microsoft also gave it a shot with its tablet PC concept that was personally championed by Bill Gates. PC manufacturers responded, and for a while at the dawn of the 21st century, it seemed like a stylus-based version of Windows XP might usher in the age of tablets.
But customers shunned Windows tablets for their high price and mediocre user experience. The fact that tablet manufacturers remained wishy-washy over the form factor--most vendors made both a clamshell model with a digital-pen-based touchscreen, and a convertible model with a swiveling touchscreen and a laptop-sized keyboard--didn't help.
By 2005 the writing was on the wall: Apart from industries such as health care and construction where they have found small niches, Windows Tablet PCs were a bust.
Even Apple failed at its first attempt at tablets. The Newton MessagePad was a 90s-era rival to the Palm Pilot. The fact that it was more ambitious than the Pilot only magnified its shortcomings.
That makes Apple's success with the iPad even more remarkable. In its first 90 days, Apple sold 3.27 million iPads. ISuppli, a leading market researcher, expects Apple to sell 100 million iPads over the next three years, provided it can keep up with demand.
The iPad's success is launching a thousand rivals. Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, RIM, Dell, Lenovo, Asus, Acer, Google and Microsoft are all supporting their own tablets or tablet platforms.
The pie certainly seems big enough. In a recent survey by Zogby International, 52% of smartphone owners said they would most likely use a tablet to do work, while 75% think devices like the iPad will make them more productive.
So why are tablets set to finally succeed when they have failed so many times in the past? The first reason is technical. Their imaginations fired by sci-fi movies, tablet designers dreamed of creating fast, compact devices that responded to the touch of a finger.
Moore's Law, however, dictated that designers had two choices: 1) Make them slow, have poor battery life, and require the less-natural, easily lost stylus (digital pen), or 2) use bleeding-edge components that would make the tablet too expensive for most consumers.
In 2010 technology finally caught up with the dreams of hardware engineers. Moreover, smartphones like the iPhone have already taught a generation of users how three-finger swiping and other multi-touch gestures work.
The second reason why tablets are ready is related to business: mobile apps are a proven, profitable industry. The iPhone has 225,000 apps, Google's Android has 100,000. These apps can be quickly brought over from smartphone to tablet with minimal rewriting. That makes tablets immediately attractive to potential buyers. Contrast that with Windows Tablet XP, which had plenty of non-touch apps but never attracted a large ecosystem of touch-capable developers.
The third reason is cultural. Past tablets arrived at a time when computers were tightly controlled by IT departments. Today's tablets are emerging at a time when corporate workers are clamoring for the right to bring in and use their personal phones and laptops to work.
How To Prepare For The Coming Flood
Windows tablets have made inroads in specialized fields: for doctors to view and enter patient medical records, or for construction managers and others involved in field service. The iPad may lack their ruggedness and some other enterprise-grade features. However, it is also less than half the price while sporting more than twice the sex appeal.
IPads are already starting to make their way into corporations, with 80% of the Fortune 100 already testing and evaluating the iPad, according to Apple. In other words: iPads aren't being snuck in slowly like the iPhone was, but are flouncing through the front door straight into the welcoming arms of IT.
So how can companies prepare for this deluge? It's not that difficult. First and foremost, by arming themselves with mobile device management software. The right kind will be able to secure and set policies around multiple kinds of tablets, from iPads to BlackPads to Ciuses to EEE Pads ... well, you get the picture.
Companies will also need to lay out clear policies on how employees bring in their own personal tablets for work, similar to the policies they might already have for personal smartphones.
Finally, companies, if they haven't already, need to mobilize their back-end business systems so that employees can access key data anytime, anywhere. This can be done by purchasing prebuilt mobile solutions, or by building their own using a mobile development platform. The latter can often be faster and cheaper, especially if using a platform that enables developers to "write once, run everywhere" on multiple tablet platforms.
The benefits, however, can be huge, empowering workers to bypass broken-down processes, and enabling corporations to stop on a dime and make other moves necessary in today's real-time, insight-driven markets. What we like to call the Unwired Enterprise.
(Gary Kovacs, Forbes.com)