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Tablets and the Virtual Worker

We're starting to see more tablets targeted not to the consumer but to the enterprise, and the current rumors out of the PC world suggest that there will be even more coming this fall. The Cisco Cius is perhaps the flagship of this space because it's the product of a vendor with enormous market influence and considerable charisma. There's already analyst predictions that tablets will create a future enterprise that buys no desktop/laptop systems at all, relying instead on tablets as thin clients of enterprise-as-a-service. They may be right, but not for the reasons they think.

All the tablet-revolutionizes-the-enterprise hype begs the question of why, given the shrinking laptop/netbook sizes, we've not seen thin clients and as-a-service sweeping the enterprise already. Yes, there are examples of success, but walk through a typical office at your next opportunity and have a look at workers' technology. You're not going to see tablets, but desktop and laptop PCs. So if there's going to be a sweeping change in how enterprises access applications, we need to look harder at what might create it. As it happens, Cisco may have given us the clue. It's docking.

The PR material on Cius has focused on the gadget sitting in a docking station that looks like a phone. The perception is that Cius, with its video capabilities, is now making phones video-ready, but of course if that were the goal we could simply sell the user a video phone. What is interesting about the Cius isn't its video per se, it’s the concept of docking. With Cius, or any similar tablet, you could visualize a worker's information technology (what CIMI Corporation calls the worker’s "jobspace") encapsulated in a portable gadget. If you stick that gadget into any dock on any kind of device, that device becomes "yours" in the sense that it now represents you in your company's information universe. That, my friends, could create some revolutionary changes!

In a UC sense, tablet-resident identity could open up true flexibility in terms of communications with a kind of follow-me automatic forwarding of connections. Dock a tablet in a device, have that device then register with a central call handler, and every call could be forwarded and every policy enforced at the new docked location. If the tablet is 3G/4G equipped, then it can function (with a Bluetooth headset) as a regular wireless phone but also turn into a desk phone at any desk where it can dock.

The docking could also help socialize video, which clearly is still dear to John Chambers' heart. There's a bit of a jarring shift between Cisco's high-end video telepresence strategy with its banks of HDTVs, and the notion of doing video on a 7-inch tablet. One possible solution is to provide a series of video docks through various company and hospitality locations. A Cius user with a sudden need to expand video partners to something bigger than a postage stamp could stick the tablet into a dock on a kiosk with a nice 32-inch monitor and conference away.

Another application could be personalizing a variety of computers. Docking a tablet could essentially dock a virtual representation of a user. The passwords, access rights, and even application components needed by the owner for regular business activity could reside in (or be keyed by) the tablet. Add a form of face or fingerprint recognition and you have a pretty ironclad access security mechanism.

There are also developments in the application area that could promote the notion of the tablet as a kind of application on-ramp, and some are emerging from the world of Linux, which is a kind of parent to Google Android and thus the framework for at least Cisco's tablet. The idea is what’s called a "Site-Specific Browser" or SSB, originally conceptualized to customize browser GUIs to match the requirements of a particular website, then later to extend the customization to plug-ins and features that would make the browser into something smarter than a typical thin client but more maintainable than a desktop/laptop PC. If you added SSB technology to a tablet, you could create something that many enterprises have been looking for--an application client that administers itself, solves compatibility issues, enforces compliance rules, and does all of this with minimal central tech support.

Most of the applications noted here weren't a specific focus of Cisco's launch and haven't been committed to by competitors either. But RIM knows Cisco has ambitions in this space, and so does HP. Both companies have a big stake in the enterprise and so neither can afford to sit back and let Cisco control the agenda. You could argue that the HP purchase of Palm was motivated by the realization that appliances were going to become increasingly application and UC portals, and that HP therefore had to have an independent (meaning not linked to Microsoft's Windows 7 or Phone 7) position there. RIM already has its own phone OS that it's been reworking to become a tablet system, and SSB technology could be added to pretty much anything with a browser, including an iPad.

Docking and security/identity are probably going to be the keys to this process. I've heard that a number of tablet players are already working on a system that would let a tablet contact (via the Internet) a trusted registration point to validate the security of a given dock, and let the docking point do the same with respect to tablet security. With both tablet and dock validated, it's pretty straightforward to make the combination a personalized but portable kernel of user-owned application intelligence. Somebody--probably many somebodies--will likely do just that, and likely by the end of the year. Then we may finally see the thin client vision of the '90s realized.