Windows, iOS or Android: Who will win the business tablets battle?

Summary:Apple, Microsoft and Android manufacturers are lining up to go after the business tablet market in earnest. So who will come out on top?

After years of being overlooked in favour of the shiny consumer market, the enterprise tablet market is about to get a lot more interesting.

With the consumer market seemingly reaching saturation, tablet makers are now starting to look at the enterprise market with hungry eyes.

Nearly all the consumers who might want to buy a tablet have already bought one, and secondly they're holding onto them a lot longer that manufacturers hoped — meaning the tablet replacement market has been flatter than many expected.

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On top of that, margins on consumer hardware can be razor-thin compared to premium-priced business devices (especially if you can get those businesses to cough up for consulting and services on top).

All of this makes the business market — now finally waking up to the potential of tablets — a very tempting one.

However, the enterprise market has its own list of must-haves not found in the consumer sphere: those physical keyboards which are an optional extra for consumers, for example, plus bullet-proof security and management capabilities.

The enterprise market is more demanding and conservative than its consumer counterpart, making it tougher to crack for tablet manufacturers — especially those not selling Windows-powered slates.

Clearly Microsoft is already well entrenched in business, from the PC on most users' desks through to cloud services at the backend. When Androids and iPads arrive in the office, they're trespassing uneasily on what's still largely Redmond's turf.

That's surely one of the reasons behind Apple's recent alliance with IBM , which will see the pair make industry-specific applications built on iOS.

And while Android accounts for the majority of consumer tablet sales it has much to prove in the enterprise. One potential avenue for Android to make itself more business-friendly is to use its strong position in smartphones as a beachhead; perhaps tighter integration between Android smartphones and tablets might make business customers look twice.

Short term, all of this is likely to be good news for Microsoft, which has had plenty of time to get ready with its Surface tablet, and for makers of hybrid Windows tablets. Choosing some kind of Windows hybrid tablet PC is the safest choice for most risk-averse CIOs as staff don't need much retraining to use them and the devices will integrate easily with existing infrastructure – two big boxes ticked.

Still, Apple is likely to make more of an impact — thanks to the IBM deal, those iPads dished out to executives may get a lot more useful. Android in the enterprise may be a far longer term project, but just wait for all those kids coming out of school used to nothing but Chromebooks.

Look further out, and the enterprise tablet market gets far more interesting. Increasingly, enterprise apps are web-based, which means the operating system and the device used to access them is almost irrelevant. That suggests that the enterprise desktop market will be shaken up in ways that are harder to predict. We're seeing the opening skirmishes of what could be a long war.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener

Topics: Enterprise Software, Mobility, Tablets

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, and has been writing about technology, business and culture for more than a decade. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.

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