With post-PC era comes real OS competition

Thanks to SaaS and Web apps, corporate users like United Airlines may feel less locked-in

ORLANDO - Last year, United Airlines began replacing flight bags with iPads. It meant that pilots no longer had to carry a briefcase stuffed with 45 pounds of charts, checklists, handbooks and other materials.

But the iPad doesn't have a lock on United's business. When it is time to update the hardware, in perhaps two to three years, United will be investigating at least three operating systems for its tablet platform, said Jon Merritt, senior manager, flight operations IT.

"Is the next device that we deploy going to be an iPad, is it going to be a Windows or an Android-based tablet?" said Merritt.

That's a question that the IT staff at United will answer in time, but the mere fact that it can investigate all three client device operating systems is a major change for corporate IT.

For sure, United's cockpit tablet deployment is an entirely new approach for the airline: It replaced paper, not Windows, so a fresh approach was possible.

But Peter Sondergaard, Gartner's research director, says they are predicting that in two years, 20% of sales organizations will use tablets as the primary mobile platform for their field sales forces. By 2018, 70% of mobile workers will use a tablet or hybrid device that has tablet-like functions.

Gartner tablet estimate

Sondergaard is describing a world that is less desktop dependent and, by extension, less Windows dependent.

At the Gartner Symposium/ITexpo conference here, where Merritt talked about United's deployment, there was enormous focus, overall, on the competition in the mobile space, as well as the impact of the cloud, social collaboration and data on information delivery.

Enterprises will not only be less anchored to the PC but to other operating systems as well. Analysts at this conference described a shifting app marketplace that will move from native apps, written for a specific mobile device, to Web apps accessed via a browser.

By 2015, Gartner predicted that mobile Web technologies will have advanced enough "so that half the applications that in 2012 would be written as native apps will be instead delivered as Web apps."

United's ability to consider changing tablet hardware platforms is make possible by its applications delivery system. It is using a system developed by Airwatch, a mobile device management firm, which provides the security and the cloud for United's application, which is delivered as a software as service.

Will there be a cost involved in moving OS platforms? "There is none from our platform perspective," said John Marshall, the CEO of Airwatch. The only cost would be related to any training on the actual hardware device itself, he said.

Marshall said it would not be a huge jump to move from iPad to Windows. On a technical side, in many cases, "IT prefers a Microsoft architecture because that's what they have," he said, but Apple "has the user experience heads and tails above" some of the others."

With its launch of Windows 8, Microsoft joins the battle and counter it's the slump in PC sales with a new strategy that will take it more aggressively into tablets. There weren't any bold predictions made at the Gartner conference about how Microsoft or anyone else will fare as users, such as United, investigate their options.

See more Computerworld Windows 8 launch coverage including news, reviews and blogs.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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