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The mobile tipping point is coming: Are you ready?

Windows' and Windows Live Division President Steven Sinofsky attends the Windows 8 Consumer Preview presentation at Hotel Miramar during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona February 29, 2012.

GUSTAU NACARINO/Gustau Nacarino/Reuters

Two years ago, during an onstage interview at the D8 conference, Wall Street Journal technology writer Walt Mossberg asked Apple Inc.'s then-CEO, Steve Jobs, if tablet computers would eventually replace laptops.

Mr. Jobs's response was unusual. He answered the question by explaining the difference between cars and trucks.

Trucks are specialized vehicles. They're good for power-hungry, heavy-duty work. But for most people's everyday needs – picking up the kids from school or taking a trip to the grocery store – a car can get the job done just fine.

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Thus, Mr. Jobs's analogy. Tablets are like cars: lightweight, general-purpose, and convenient.

PCs, on the other hand, "are going to be like trucks," he said. Traditional laptops and desktops "are still going to be around. They're still going to have a lot of value." But fewer people will need them.

This was Mr. Jobs's vision of the so-called "post-PC era." Some people will need or want the power and flexibility of a traditional PC. But for many everyday computing tasks, a tablet will work just fine.

Exactly one year after Mr. Jobs made his "tablets are like cars" analogy, Microsoft Corp. officially announced Windows 8, the next version of its popular operating system.

The most prominent (and controversial) feature of Windows 8 is its new interface, called Metro, which is decidedly more car-like than truck-like.

Rather than the familiar Windows desktop and start menu, Windows 8 users will be presented with a simplified, tile-based home screen. This new Metro-style interface is specifically designed to work best on touch-screen devices, and represents a significant retooling of Windows.

While it's true that Microsoft has incorporated tablet-friendly features into its desktop operating systems in the past (remember Windows for Pen Computing), Windows 8 is the first version where tablets and touch-screens have played such a defining role.

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Globe Technology reporter Omar El Akkad was so struck by the Metro interface that he wrote that Windows 8 will mark the " death of the desktop as we know it]note>("

Given Microsoft's recent focus on mobile, are there lessons here for other businesses? Is it possible (or prudent) for existing small businesses to retool for mobile? Can (or should) mobile customers drive the way you do business?

Over the next four weeks, this Web Strategy series will investigate just that.

To begin, let's take a look at the tablet landscape in Canada. At the moment, it's a small market. But its expected growth is huge.

According to IDC Canada, by the end of 2011, under 1 per cent of Canada's labour force was using a media tablet purchased by their company.

IDC senior mobility Analyst Krista Napier says that's because the tablet market is still in its early days.

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"It's only been two years that these devices have even been in the market. And it's very much been a consumer phenomenon."

Consumer adoption of media tablets in Canada was around 6 per cent of the Canadian population by the end of 2011.

But despite today's relatively small numbers (at least when compared to traditional desktops and laptops), IDC predicts huge growth over the next few years.

"In Canada, we expect the number of smartphones and media tablets -- I'll call those 'mobile devices' – we expect more of those to be installed in the market by 2015 than all laptops and desktops combined," Ms. Napier says.

We're headed towards a tipping point, when mobile devices will eventually outnumber traditional desktop and laptop computers.

That has implications for all business, not just the high-tech industry.

"Even if you're not a tech company, your end user will increasingly be using these devices," Ms. Napier says. "It's a way for businesses to remain more relevant and timely with their users, regardless of the industry."

If IDC's forecast is correct, the time to start planning your business's mobile strategy is now, while the numbers are still relatively small.

Over the next few weeks, we'll look at how some small business are adopting a "mobile first" strategy, and how you can best prepare your own business for the coming mobile tipping point.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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