Aug 21

When is a smart-phone a tablet, or a PC?

In the complex world of mobile devices and their management a series of ugly questions are raising their heads, such as when is a smart-phone a tablet, or a PC; when is tablet a smart-phone or a PC; when is a PC a smart-phone or a tablet? These may seem simple, even simplistic, questions. But the barriers that used to exist between each category are evaporating, with major implications for Mobile Device Management (MDM) vendors, for enterprise users and enterprise software vendors. There is less and less to distinguish between smart-phone and tablet, and even PC Three to four years ago it was easy to distinguish between a smart-phone, a tablet and a PC.  Today, in 2011, that has been turned upside down:

  • Apple introduced the iOS platform
  • Google, with Android, wrested non-iOS smart-phone market leadership from Windows Mobile and Symbian
  • PCs are being forsaken, at some levels, for non-PC devices – like smart-phones and even more so, tablets
  • smart-phones now have 4”-5” screen, multi-core processors and, most importantly, have processing capabilities that are tantamount to a Netbook or lesser laptop.

In addition the way devices are bought and managed has flipped on end. Before (say) 2011, PCs, especially top-end, easily-portable lap-tops were primarily bought by organizations for their employees and came within the general management of IT’s assets whereas mobile phones were largely chosen and purchased by their users, not enterprises – with the significant exception being RIM’s Blackberry smart-phones. Today, the following is more likely:

  • smart-phones are all the rage and so much has changed: whether with iOS or Android based, 100M+ smart-phones have become fashion/function items — with a critical difference being that users (rather than enterprises) choose what to buy
  • some 30M+ tablets are already in use globally – whether iOS, Android, QNX (RIM) or others, albeit that most of these are ‘personal items’ rather than enterprise ones
  • PCs have changed, by comparison, very little: they remain mostly the purchase province of IT though they are becoming specialty devices (with configuration determined by specific applications.

Traditional boundaries have eroded and/or are disappearing. From a Mobile Device Management perspective all this raises issues about deployment, operation, data control and access. MDM in an enterprise is becoming more ever complex, and having to address devices that were not necessarily bought (and therefore controlled) by the enterprise. Both tablets and smart-phones contribute to this, and both confuse further by their increasing overlaps (just look at how similar their apps are and the way in which developers must approach building apps). Previous separation characteristics, many of which aided ‘traditional’ MDM, are withering. What does it mean and a possible Windows irony? In the immediate future many IT organizations are sitting on their hands wondering what to do.  In one pharmaceutical enterprise the situation was summarized as: “Truthfully, I don’t think we are that far along, so I don’t think we’d have an opinion yet on how easy/hard it is to support a large mobile (device) deployment. At this point, we have a team of people looking at it but not much more.”  This is probably representative – today. Ironically, the Windows world on PCs knows all about such creativity and chaos. It has coped with such ‘openness’ for years (albeit exploiting the fact that most PCs were bought by employers, not employees). The new situation offers Microsoft an opportunity (even though it will be wildly late to market with its new tablet and smart-phone OS).  Its ‘modern tablet OS’ (perhaps refer to it as ‘Win8’, even though it will likely be neither announced nor available until 2012) can exploit multiple significant enterprise opportunities. Of course, this does assume that Microsoft and its partners (including, at the forefront, Nokia) can design and deliver something that is competitive when compared to iOS and its eco-system, Android and its quite different eco-system and QNX and its enterprise credibility (given that WebOS ‘self-imploded’ in the week of August 15 when HP withdrew its interest in tablets and smart-phones). The challenge for Microsoft cannot be underestimated. That said, the fact that the smart-phone and the modern tablet are becoming ever closer in function means that this marketplace is becoming that much bigger and more valuable. In essence, an opportunity exists which:

  • is Microsoft’s to lose
  • will likely pit today’s MDM vendors against traditional system management vendors (CA, BMC, IBM, HP, Microsoft, RIM, etc.) in ways that the former might prefer to avoid.

[For additional exploration of this topic, see the imminent Constellation Quark: “MDM: when is a smart-phone a tablet, or a PC — what does it mean and for whom?”]

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