Why tablet computing hasn't been big business

Over at Samsung's headquarters, the senior vice president of its Mobile Communications Division has gone on record saying that businesses will soon be snapping up tablet computers

Tablets and similar devices from Apple, HP, Lenovo, ASUS and Dell

Tablets and similar devices from Apple, HP, Lenovo, ASUS and Dell

Over at Samsung's headquarters, the senior vice president of its Mobile Communications Division has gone on record saying that businesses will soon be snapping up tablet computers. In the interview, Lee Don Joo recounted the same old industries that for years have apparently been crying out for tablet computers: hospitals, travelling sales staff, and so on.

Mr Lee might be right but his comments left me feeling a little depressed. We've been here before, several times, over and over again.

Shock, horror: Apple didn't invent the tablet computer with the iPad. Tablets have been around since the last century, and poor old Microsoft has been hacking away at software to run on tablets for the same amount of time. In fact, Microsoft coined the term "tablet." There have been one or two Linux efforts too.

Throughout all that time, we've seen waves of hype about tablets revolutionizing business computing. Every single time it's come to nothing.

Given the sheer amount of effort and money invested, why have tablets never taken off in business? And why did Apple's iPad waltz in and prove such a success?

People forget that Apple is a consumer electronics company, and this is one of the keys to its success. It has a foot in the business world with its iWork software, but ads for the iPad or iPhone show trendy young people enjoying Apple hardware at their leisure. These blessed youth do fun things like play games, read ebooks, or watch movies and view photos.

At no point are we shown an individual in a business suit tapping away at a tablet in the business class lounge of an airport. I haven't checked but I guarantee that, if you look at the marketing materials for every other tablet device, there will be at least one photo of a smart business-suited person using the device while grabbing a cappuccino between flights.

Tablet computer manufactures have always been obsessed with business users.

One of Apple's biggest tricks, therefore, is to use a different vector to crack the tablet market: consumers. But this is not to say the iPad can't be a superb business computer. It's just that Apple is clever enough to spot the marketing dead-end that is business tablet computing and avoid it completely.

However, there exists another key to Apple's success: its products are built around giving people freedom in the user experience. Apple lets you figure out how best to make use of their handhelds. The App Store is a beautiful demonstration of this--it's all about choosing what you want to do with your iPhone or iPad, and not being badgered into using them in a particular way.

Business users are no different from home users in needing this kind of freedom.

By way of a demonstration of how not to do it, take a look at Windows Phone 7. Everything is built-in, making for a very focused device. You want Facebook? It's built-in. You want Gmail? It's there. It feels like Windows Phone 7 is trying too hard.

Although it might sound like built-in tools present a lot of usability, what Microsoft is actually doing is limiting the user by pushing them into particular usage scenarios. It's feels too limiting. The user has little freedom to adapt the phone to their way of working without a significant amount of tedious configuration.

There's a lot to be said for having faith in users to make best use of their computer, without pushing and pulling them in ways you think are best for them.

Apple has a habit of opening up markets for other manufacturers. The iPhone opened up the smartphone market, and the iPod did the same for the media player market. The iPad is set to do the same for the tablet market--but if they want business success, I hope manufacturers both learn from past mistakes and take a leaf out of Apple's book when it comes to the freedom inherent in the tablet device experience.

Lee Don Joo is wrong to target devices at market sectors. It's better to manufacture a comprehensive tablet with the likes of a high-quality app store, and leave users to figure out the best way of using it.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com.

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Keir Thomas

PC World (US online)
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