Mark Walsham
4 March

Tablets - We have been here before, haven't we?

The answer to that question unequivocally is yes.

For many years the PC industry has touted the virtue of tablet PCs, why they were so good for us all, the benefits that could be had and the freedom of increased mobility.

Why then have they not really achieved critical mass in the market place? 

Well, in those early days, the software and hardware were simply not good enough. Remember the need for traditional input devices, such as keyboards, styli and pointing devices? These all undermined the panacea of better mobility and portability, and ultimately the tablet revolution stalled.

Why is this changing?

The ever forward march of technological innovation, specifically in miniaturisation, integrated communications and most importantly, simplified input mechanisms, have helped push this form factor to the fore once again. 

No one could refute the success of Apple and their touch interfaces, specifically in the iPhone and iPod Touch range of devices, and the developments from Microsoft in their 'surface' technologies.  These devices, with simplistic user interface navigation, integrated communication abilities and portability, are now realising the potential of an always connected portable productivity device.

With the development of the Apple iPad, and emerging technologies from Google utilising Chrome OS and Android, the technology is now reaching a greater level of maturity and offers a number of opportunities for exploitation.  All of these devices now support near PC client experiences via Web 2.0 supported browsers, allowing a vast number of applications and services to be rolled out to a large number of users.

We should also not forget the role of the netbook computer, which has seen an explosion of popularity.  Although these devices have yet to implement touch interfaces, they have driven demand for light, portable, low power and always on communication devices, and as the touch technologies mature, and become commoditised, we may see notebooks converging with the tablet space.

What are the opportunities?

As we have seen, the key advantages of the tablet form factor are portability, ease of use and integrated communications, allowing businesses to equip their staff with a multifunctional computing device, with standard web based applications delivered over internal, cloud based, or public networks.  In addition to this, by exposing the user interface via intuitive touch interface design, manipulation and entry of data is made simpler and faster.

Scenario 1 - Healthcare

Consider the model used in a number of hospitals within the UK. PCs are either bolted to fixed desks in specific locations, or tend to be a "PC on a trolley" configuration.  Also consider the work these healthcare professionals do on a daily basis, visiting bedsides to monitor patients' progress and updating notes.

Why not then, in the future, make patients' notes available to the healthcare professionals via a small, secure, highly functional tablet device, allowing data to be quickly and efficiently entered via a touch interface? This device will update information upon the central patient record.  This has number of advantages over the traditional PC model, one quite simply being the immediacy of information being made available to the patient record, secondly a reduction in the amount of paper based administration work these healthcare professionals would need to complete, and finally, and a key consideration within the healthcare domain, these devices will offer advantages over standard PC/netbook keyboards and input devices by reducing the possibility of cross infection, by being very much easier to sanitise and clean.

These may also allow the healthcare professional to see supporting information, such as medication profiles, allergy information and current care path, which could help clinicians in making improved decisions for patient care.  Tablets could also be used as highly efficient communication/collaboration tools between clinicians, allowing information to be shared and reviewed.

Scenario 2 - Media Management

Imagine your company manages a large scale sporting event, and you have a wide diversity of information sources?  How do you manage and consolidate this information, quickly, efficiently and to enable it to be published to a wide audience?  Consider also that you are required to be highly mobile, attending different events and collecting information.

Traditional models of bulky tablet PCs, netbooks or pen and paper solutions have been used in the past and slow this process down.  Certainly early generation tablet PCs required fiddly input regimes to input and manipulate information, and battery life was typically poor.

The new generation of tablets will enable a great deal of these problems to be overcome, being highly portable, and enabling organisations to aggregate information quickly, such as the aforementioned sporting events, and deliver these quickly and efficiently.

Certainly touch based interfaces and gesture based systems allow much finer control over that information and the processes of consolidation and publishing, and increased mobility and battery life also provide key benefits.

Future Direction - where are we heading?

It is hard to predict where the tablet computing model will take us, but it is clear there are a number of opportunities that will provide real value to businesses and indeed, individuals.  It is also becoming clear that always on, always connected and high portability will support initiatives such as cloud computing, simple application management and distribution to an ever widening audience.

I can also see the convergence of netbooks with touch screen technology, which may prove to tip the balance for the tablet revolution.  It will certainly provide a diverse platform for the development of applications and services that could take advantage of the increased freedoms of mobility and ease of use.  If this convergence takes place, and the netbook/tablet becomes commoditised, we can all see that application development will need a step change in order to support these challenges. 

How much traction the development tools and frameworks will gain to support the tablet revolution, in the short term is still unclear, nonetheless the real challenge is going to be the delivery of value driven business applications.  Apple has proven that applications that provide simple and valuable user interaction with the hardware can be very successful.

If we, as technology drivers, can build those application frameworks and exploit the hardware available to us we can be sure that so called "critical mass" will be achieved, and the tablet revolution will begin!


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