Despite a host of challengers entering the marketplace throughout 2011, Apple's iPad remained the top choice among consumers and businesses in the market for a tablet. However, 2012 could witness the beginnings of a seismic change in the tablet landscape: If everything proceeds according to rumored schedule, Microsoft will release Windows 8 on tablets in addition to traditional PCs-forcing Apple into a harder fight to preserve its dominant market share.
Certainly Apple enters 2012 in a strong position among business users; according to research firm IHS iSuppli, the company will hold an estimated 65.6 percent of the global tablet market by the end of the fourth quarter 2011. During its fiscal fourth-quarter earnings call, Apple claimed that 93 percent of the Fortune 500 are testing or deploying the iPad.
Meanwhile, Apple's highest-profile rivals for corporate dollars, including Research In Motion's PlayBook, continue to suffer from anemic sales. During its Dec. 15 earnings call, RIM executives reported the company shipped about 150,000 PlayBook tablets during the quarter.
The iPad benefitted from an evolving trend toward allowing employees to bring their personal devices into their corporation's IT infrastructure. This is commonly referred to as bring your own device, or BYOD.
But it also came at something of a cost, as IT administrators scrambled to find a way to integrate the iPad while maintaining their organization's overall policies.
"A lot of IT administrators wanted to keep the iPad out of the enterprise, and then they were sort of forced to follow along," Kurt Roemer, chief security strategist for Citrix Systems, told eWEEK in an interview. "They needed to find a way to have an acceptable level of security on a consumer-grade device."
Many of those organizations have solved their security and compatibility issues, helped in large part by third-party vendors anxious for their own piece of the burgeoning iPad market. Salesforce.com, Citrix and other companies all pushed out iOS apps for business users, each offering their own brand of functionality.
"Tablets are the new way of interacting with anything," said Peter Coffee, vice president and head of platform research at Salesforce. "Tablets are not just replacements for PCs. They're a new master key that we're going to use to unlock data and access function in pretty much every environment you can imagine."
Those factors combine to make Apple a considerable opponent for any tablet manufacturer looking to carve off its own piece of the market in 2012. But Microsoft and its OEMs are going to give it the old-fashioned college try, with a variety of tablets running Windows 8.
Windows 7 tablets currently have a niche presence-by the second quarter of 2011, research firm Strategy Analytics pegged their share at 5 percent of the global market-but businesses whose employees need Windows applications continue to show interest in them.
"We wanted to find one that was lightweight and easy to carry," said John Titus, IT manager for Hospice & Palliative Care of Cape Cod, whose organization has deployed 30 Fujitsu Stylistic Q550 tablets running Windows 7. Security was also a factor: "All our drives are encrypted; all these tablets have biometric devices on them," Titus added.
With Windows 8, Microsoft hopes to expand that niche into something more substantial. While its exact plans remain unconfirmed, Acer is reportedly planning to release at least one Windows 8 tablet before the end of 2012. Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman has told the media that her company (which already produces Windows 7 touch screens) would "certainly" be in the Windows 8 tablet business.
Acer and HP almost certainly won't be the only ones. The question is whether Microsoft and its Windows operating systems have what it takes to create a blockbuster tablet.
Windows 8's user interface is bifurcated into two separate-but-linked environments: one filled with colorful tiles linked to applications, supposedly ideal for tablets, alongside a more traditional desktop familiar to regular Windows users. The tile interface hews to the same "Metro" design language that also governs Microsoft's Windows Phone and its newly launched Xbox Live dashboard; in turn, that has spread rumors that Microsoft will eventually attempt to unite its disparate platforms into a single, interoperating ecosystem.
In any case, Microsoft has promised that Windows 8, most likely due late in 2012, will offer a "no compromises" environment, even on thin-and-light form-factors such as tablets; if that promise comes to fruition, then Windows 8 could help further define how tablets are used for productivity and communication. Certainly some power users and IT administrators would appreciate the ability to run heavy-duty Windows applications through an interface more suited to touch than Windows 7.