Since the introduction about five years ago of smartphones and their dramatic pace of commoditization, the trend of end users bringing their own devices into the workplace and asking or demanding that IT support them has been picking up pace. This consumerization trend has been accelerating following last year’s introduction of the iPad. As a completely new form factor, the iPad is driving completely new usage habits and end user expectations for tablet devices.

The iPad and its Android-based competitors are general-purpose one-size-fits-all computing devices – granted they are built around and optimized for a touch screen in a revolutionary manner. However, for many , it’s been fair game to compare these tablet computing devices in the same breath to single-purpose tablet appliances such as the e-readers Kindle from Amazon and Nook from Barnes & Noble. These devices, while similar in appearance, are vastly different in purpose and design. Built on the Android operating environment these devices are appliances: purpose-built and optimized for a single purpose; In this case, reading books.

In the consumer technology space the question is “when is an appliance a better general-purpose device?” I would strongly suggest the answer is “never.” (Unless, of course, it’s a virtual appliance! )

Having lived through the debacle that was computing appliances at Sun Microsystem (Sun acquired Cobalt Systems for $2B but shut down the computing appliance vendor after just one failed year), it’s very difficult to take a purpose-built engine and make it fit a commoditized, general-purpose market. Yet despite history we are seeing headlines like this:

Barnes & Noble Plans New E-Book Reader
Wall Street Journal (May 4, 2011)
Summary: In a SEC filing, Barnes & Noble revealed their intentions to release a new e-book reader on May 24. There is speculation this device would be a combination of a tablet and e-reader.

In addition there has been industry speculation following Amazon’s foray into the Android application marketplace that the Kindle is too being repurposed into a general-purpose tablet.

Don’t get me wrong: if Amazon and Barnes & Noble are interested in pursuing their niche in the tablet business there would be no one more interested than me (and Citrix) in supporting their devices with Citrix Receiver for secure enterprise access to data, apps and desktops! However if they believe that they can simply add access to general-purpose Android applications to their existing platforms they haven’t learned from history. End users will take them up on their offer and install applications that benefit from touch screens, built-in GPS or other capabilities left unfulfilled by their appliances and will soon realize that they can much more easily install the B&N or Kindle app on a Motorola Xoom or Apple iPad than get a rich, multimedia experience from a Kindle. Maybe that’s ok for Amazon. After all, they are first and foremost a media sales company. From whichever platform you purchase a book or a music album, Amazon always takes a cut. At the end of the day, Amazon is also happy to sell you an iPad from their store, as well.

If, however, either company believes the transition from retail to hardware vendor is a small leap, they will be quickly surprised to find out how many vendors have tried and failed to make the leap.

Now I’m not the only one looking at the tablet appliance market and wondering how long vendors like the booksellers will continue to support single-purpose platforms. The money in applications and general ubiquity is too large to ignore. After all, if you’re making the investment in the hardware and software integration you might as well go all the way and make the investment address the largest market possible.