Tablet computing is a decade-old technology, but one that lay buried since users rejected Microsoft's "heavy OS" approach a while back. A year ago, Apple's iPad resurrected the tablet computing concept, delivering a lightweight sheet of computational glass with a pleasant, responsive user interface and a blizzard of applications.
Users love it, and now a barrage of wannabe tablets are flooding the marketplace. All do reasonably well at the four applications users access most: web, email, books and media. And the half million or so apps in the collective app stores of Apple, Android and BlackBerry would seem to fill every conceivable mobile need.
But users, particularly business users, want more. They want to throw away their laptop computers, or at least drag them out less often.
Galen Gruman has proclaimed that these devices will become the main computing device for most workers, and recently one mobile device management company declared the laptop is dead, based on the meteoric increase in tablet offerings. The statement may be premature, given that Google's Android 3.0 ("Honeycomb") OS has yet to appear commercially, and planned tablets from the likes of HP and RIM depend on proprietary, unproven operating systems. Still, it's clear that huddled users are yearning to be laptop-free.
Unfortunately, a laptop is still de rigueur if you want to do anything that involves moving files around. That's because file management remains a serious soft spot in today's tablet products. Syncing files between a user's desktop and a tablet's file system can be a tedious exercise. It's worse when the tablet lacks even the idea of a file system, which is the case with the iPad (which instead treats files as a component of each application's work space).
The default way on the iPad for moving files in and out is a Rube Goldberg nightmare, involving iTunes, cables, and many, many clicks, or routing everything as email attachments.
By contrast, Android apps can share files with each other, the OS gives apps the ability to traverse the entire underlying device file system, although its default behaviour is to keep files private. This approach is much more amenable to cloud storage interaction.
Unless you think outside the box and tap into the cloud, stash your files in cloud storage, from which you pluck them to work and to which you push them when done. Then everything syncs everywhere, so your changes are immediately reflected on your tablet, your desktop and your boss's desktop.
Alas, the cloud/tablet marriage hasn't worked out that smoothly, largely because tablet OS makers seem to have not considered cloud storage in their designs. Third-party services and applications are filling the void, helping users juggle a huge variety of file formats and object types. But tablet OS makers offer little or no built-in cloud support, which is holding back ubiquitous cloud adoption.
The problem is not just with Apple's iPad. Despite having a year or more of iPad experience to factor into their own development, the iPad's competing OS developers also haven't addressed this problem directly. Google's Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" edition, HP's WebOS for its forthcoming TouchPad, RIM's QNX-based BlackBerry Tablet OS for its forthcoming PlayBook, and Canonical's imminent multitouch Ubuntu 10.10 "Maverick Meerkat" all appear to lack specific cloud support.
The cloud storage apps step into the breach
Back at the dawn of the iPad (less than a year ago, believe it or not), Apple fan Robert Mozayeni queried Apple CEO Steve Jobs by email: "...I was wondering if there was any way to get my documents onto my iPad, through either iWork.com or iDisk?"
"Yes," replied Jobs, without elaboration. Apple did deliver on that implicit promise for both its still-beta iWork.com collaboration site and the MobileMe cloud service's iDisk virtual disk feature.
Alas, poor Mozayeni neglected to tell Jobs that he wanted to put the documents back after editing them on the iPad. Apple didn't deliver that capability until the November iOS 4.2 update, and in any event, the trick only works for subscribers of Apple's $99-per-year MobileMe service. Apple provides no interface to other cloud storage services, you need an app for that.
There are in fact apps for that, with innovative solutions providing both an alternative to MobileMe's annual subscription and functionality beyond Apple's meagre MobleMe/iPad sync capability. These products cover a wide range of capabilities and prices, with a visible trend toward extra-cost business class features such as collaboration, encryption, support for multiple users, reporting, group permissions and rebranding.
These mobile cloud services predate the current tablet craze, by dint of being launched two or more years ago to provide convenient file sharing among desktop users or to deliver bulk enterprise class cloud storage. They've also been serving cloud storage capabilities to smartphones. As a result, numerous developers have incorporated access to these third party services in their smartphone apps, many of which also run on tablets.
The cloud storage service providers include big guns such as Amazon.com's Simple Storage Service (S3), Apple's MobileMe, Google's Google Docs, Microsoft's Live Mesh/SkyDrive, and Rackspace's Cloud Files. Users generally don't interact directly with these providers from their tablets, but instead work with an intermediate provider such as Box.net, Dropbox, JungleDisk, Soonr, and Spot Documents.
Some intermediaries also offer their own apps for iOS and Android devices, and there are several cross-cloud storage apps, such as CloudConnect Pro and SMEStorage. Plus, there are third party apps that give tablet users access to SharePoint document collections.