Magazine Article | September 25, 2012

What's The Best Tablet OS?

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine

Windows 8 has arrived, but competition from Android and Apple will continue.

Selecting the right platform can make or break an enterprise application, so IT staff have to evaluate tablets based on their security risks, cost, and compliance with internal IT standards. “Additional considerations outside the legacy applications are device management, security, image control, and device lifecycle management,” says Bryan Wesolek, founder and president of DLI. “A sustainable solution must be the priority for an enterprise solution. Many of the tablets on the market are OEM/ODM (original design manufacturer) devices. There exists vulnerability in the devices and ultimately to the enterprise. Many of the current tablet devices have a one to 1.5-year lifecycle. No upgrade path nor device and OS churn will force an enterprise to attempt to sustain unlike equipment and peripherals across multiple OS versions.”

For many companies, newer platforms like Android, while they may present some benefits (such as lower licensing costs), present too much of a management challenge for the IT department. “It becomes increasingly difficult to support devices that do not adhere to the standards-based operating systems used throughout many enterprises,” says Mary Anne Gunn, director of corporate marketing, Motion Computing. “Additionally, in larger corporate environments, the testing and utilization of desktop management tools can be time-consuming and costly as the process involves many different disciplines, such as applications, desktop support, security, network management, and loss prevention, not to mention end user training.”

Security is the wild card in the adoption of new operating systems in the enterprise world, says Chris Wright, VP of InfoMobility at DRS Technologies/ARMOR Rugged Mobile Solutions. “Microsoft has an inherent advantage, as it has been building trust for many, many years,” he says. “Although Android affords more flexibility and customization options to developers, a smaller Android developer community exists currently and is generating fewer high-level business applications. Seamless integration of tablets, other mobile computing devices, and increasingly sophisticated applications across the enterprise, as well as remote troubleshooting capabilities and compatibility with back office systems, help to keep costs down and translate to a more productive workforce.”

Three-Way OS Competition
For companies evaluating the OS options, there are three contenders: Windows, Apple iOS, and Android. Each platform has its pros and cons. Windows wins in terms of familiarity and compatibility with enterprise systems and also has an advantage when it comes to device management and security requirements. “The Windows-based tablets have the advantage in ease of integration and deployment because they are running existing operating systems and applications,” Gunn says. “While other operating systems targeted at consumers may seem more user-friendly, they are generally optimized for media consumption and not for the data crunching, multiprocessing, or content creation needs for field employees.”

Apple’s iOS platform for the iPad is limited in that it is a locked environment originally developed for controlling consumer applications. iOS does present a simpler development environment for familiar devices.

While iPads are frequently dismissed as not rugged enough for enterprise use and unfriendly to mobile device management (MDM) solutions, the fact is that quite a few companies have deployed the devices for field service and other types of applications and done so successfully. The appeal: cost and ease of use for the end users. A number of software vendors in the space have also developed products targeted at the iPad, so integration is less of a concern.

The open-source Android platform also has some appeal, since it provides slightly lower device costs, ease of use, an open architecture, and the ability to deploy applications from an app store. But the developer community is small, and the number of developers creating high-level business applications is even smaller. “These developers also are challenged with attaining support for older Android OS versions; there have been numerous upgrades and releases,” Wright says.

Platform fragmentation and instability are other obstacles. “One challenge is the various concurrent versions, leading to confusion among customers,” says John Florio, senior product manager at Juniper Systems. “Another weakness to date of Android is the limited security features available for enterprise customers, though Google has gone a long way in recent versions to address this.”

IT departments also will have to determine whether the company’s software provider supports Android or iOS and what is involved in the migration. “It’s possible that an alternative software solution will need to be supplied by a different vendor, which increases the amount of time, cost, and complexity of making the transition,” Wright says. “As well, the cost to support IT asset management tools increases significantly if the tablets do not integrate with existing tools. Smaller enterprises with more nimble IT organizations may actually be better equipped to make the transition.”

Windows 8 Tailor-Made For Tablets
For Windows users, the launch of Windows 8 this month will greatly simplify tablet OS selection, since the new OS was designed with tablets in mind. “Until now, users have been trying to apply what is essentially a desktop interface to a mobile workflow, with mixed results,” Florio says. “The key advantage of Windows 8 appears to be the movement of the true horsepower of a desktop OS in a mobile user-friendly interface. Windows 8 appears to be a transitional product, allowing for adoption of new workflows and an enhanced touch interface, while carrying forward Windows 7 support as a safety net for early adopters to allow for software developers to maintain their customer base while updating their products.”

Essentially, Windows 8 will provide the security and manageability features of past versions of Windows, but with a better mobile experience. “Microsoft’s embracing of the touch interface with Windows 8 will help rugged implementations by bolstering the ability to launch a like OS throughout the enterprise,” Wesolek says. “We are running Windows 8 in our lab and are pleased with the capabilities.”

However, Wright says that Windows will still have healthy competition from its OS competitors. “The Android market is still a nascent market for enterprise applications but because of its popularity on smartphones, Android may very well become the go-to alternative for some businesses — especially those that are sophisticated enough to do both application development and OS integration,” Wright says.