Are iPads Toys or the Tool of the Future

My thought for this week is not just about iPads.  It’s about any tablet sized device.  However, I knew mentioning iPads in the title would grab your attention.  But I serious want to address similarities between what is happening today with the iPad and what happened years ago when Apple introduced their Apple II personal computer.

I started thinking about this after hearing from employees at several companies and organizations where management thinks of iPads and tablets in general as nothing more than a distracting toy that employees want to bring to work.  Perhaps they fear that employees will become ‘addicted’ to playing with their tablet and going on the internet rather than focusing on the work that they are supposed to be doing.  When I hear these comments, I cannot help but think of similar comments a few years ago when Apple introduced the first APPLE II and Radio Shack tried to compete with the TRS-80.

Ok, it was more than a few years ago, but I remember a different management group saying that the Apple II and TRS-80 were nothing more than toys that could not do any real computing and therefore did not belong in the workplace where serious computing needed to take place.  We laugh at those days now, but having a personal device with 16 KB of memory was a big deal then which is several orders of magnitude more than the memory of even the low end iPad.  There were some of us who tried every trick possible to write serious applications in that limited space to prove that the device could be an asset to an engineer.  Big business also looked down on a company with a weird name like Apple and later Lotus as proof that they were not serious contenders for a space in their Information departments.  This was a time that required large computer centers with special environment controls, raised floors, and highly trained technicians who carefully controlled access to the beast and fed it boxes of punch cards, reams of special color bar paper and of course, lots of electricity.

But slowly renegades started to bring these personal computers into the business world.  When IBM finally introduced its first PC, business sat up and at least paid attention although many still thought that this was just a way to appease the rabble-rousers.  Early in the IBM PC life, I convinced my management of their value by developing a computer application to calculate the NPV (Net Present Value) of different boiler configurations.  In fact, we won additional money from our client to build out the final version.  But the point is that the PC took hold only as business applications were written for it.  And while it took years for the transition, eventually the personal computer, now made by many other companies other than IBM has taken over the corporate computing environment from the large mainframe computers at least in the majority of companies.  Today, it is not uncommon to walk into a company and see a desktop or laptop computer on every employee’s desk.

While Apple was not the first personal computer and they certainly did not lead the charge into the corporate environment, you can definitely say that they were very instrumental in changing the face of computing from a grass roots level.  However, it was business software that drove the ultimate acceptance.  The question I have for you today is whether Apple and the iPad represents the next revolution in personal computing and if so, where is the driving software?

Like the introduction of the Apple II was not the first personal computer, the iPad was not the first tablet available to consumers.  However, like the Apple II, the iPad did catch the attention and imagination of the public.  Currently there are a lot of other competing tablets, and while Apple fans will say that the other brands just do not measure up to the iPad, I will grant that many of the competitors have individual features that are superior.  Also like the early days of the personal computer in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the available software tends to be more game oriented rather than rigorous business applications.  Maybe these business applications need a stronger platform that is just not there yet.

Therefore, I believe that we are waiting for the right hardware combination along with the right business productivity software that will transform the way people work in such a compelling way that personal table devices will replace traditional desktop and even laptop computers in the same way that early PCs replaced mainframes.  Perhaps some of the answers to these questions are in the cloud.  By that I mean applications that run in the cloud with data storage and access to a wide diversity of source information that can be mashed together to help business make better decisions.  While there are some very interesting applications for tablets even today, I don’t think we have seen that killer hardware/software combination that will lead the way of transforming data into business information.  In fact, I believe that we are still in the early pre-82 days of exploring the potential of these devices.  On the other hand, I don’t think that future is very far away.  I only hope that when that magical combination of hardware and software arrives, that I will recognize it early enough to take advantage of the wild ride it will offer.


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