It's tempting to buy an iPad if you're the boss, but is it a good fit for small business? The answer depends entirely on your business needs.
For some, watching movies and listening to music, checking e-mail, and browsing the Web will be enough incentive to buy now. For others, this light touchscreen tablet holds promise for how we interact with computers. It's a highly portable and easy-to-use device -- with the right apps, the iPad could become the only gadget you'll need, especially if communication continues to be more about short messages and visual data.
Whether it will eventually offer features that help you create business plans with your fingertips, manage sales contacts easily, or research a new start-up idea is open for debate.
Priced at $499 for the entry-level model with 16GB and Wi-Fi, and all the way up to $829 for the 64GB version with 3G that ships this summer, the iPad falls somewhere between an impulse buy and a capital expense. It's tempting to buy one if you're the boss, but what about one for every employee?
It all comes down to ROI. (At least, once you get past the fact that everyone is talking about the shiny new device.) Here's one example of how this works. Say you want to buy an iPhone, and your business uses Salesforce.com to track business leads. The ROI is simple: Salesforce.com offers an iPhone app, so you'll pay for the phone, and maybe your cellular service, if you land just one business deal.
App selection on the iPad is slim for business users. This makes the ROI harder to quantify because there is no single app that makes the iPad a must-buy today.
There are a few compelling apps, though. LogMeIn Ignition lets you log in to a remote computer and see your screen. Things is an elegant task manager that quickly becomes a project management aid. Apple's own Keynote, a slimmed down version of PowerPoint, turns the iPad into a product demo tool. For some, any one of the ten apps for business (and there are only ten) could lead to a good ROI. Of course, you can also install one of the 150,000 apps for iPhone, but they run in a small 1/8-size view.
Today, you can also use the iPad for reading e-books, magazines, and newspapers. The pick-up-and-go size means it's easier to digest New York Times and Wall Street Journal news on the go.
Yet, if you already use a smartphone for contact management, sales automation, e-mail and the Web, and you already lug around a laptop for serious business projects, the iPad is less appealing. You might wonder: do I really need another gadget? Fortunately, all signs point to the iPad becoming a legitimate business device, even one that becomes a primary carry-at-all-times gadget.
Savvy for small biz?
One example of the business potential is The Elements, an app that shows rotating animations of a periodic table and scientific facts culled from WolframAlpha.com. It's easy to envision a similar app used in a hospital that allows doctors to pull up medical records and show you a scan of your torn ligament. Or, a law firm might use an iPad instead of a laptop to browse through legal briefs and video testimonials, respond to e-mails using the soft keyboard, and to track client activity.
Another app, FlightTrack Pro, shows a colorful full-screen map with flight information. It even alerts you to departures and arrivals. For the mobile professional, jet setting around the globe to meet clients and attend branch office brainstorming sessions, FlightTrack is indispensible.
Most of the potential for business use depends on the device itself, though. The iPad is a slim tablet that weighs just 1.5 pounds. The screen measures 9.7 inches, which is about the size of a man's hand stretch out fully. (The device looks deceptively larger in pictures than it actually is when you see it.)
It's remarkably easy to use. There are just a few buttons for Home, volume, powering down the device, and locking the screen so it does not rotate automatically. For a company thinking of handing out iPad to every employee, there is little concern over having to train employees on how to use it (because the interface is so smooth and intuitive), especially if they are already familiar with the iPhone.
So, is there an Achilles heel with the iPad? One could be that the device is still untested in the marketplace. There is no way of knowing how many business apps will be released or if they will eventually present a sound business case for purchasing the device.
Another stumbling block is that there are reports of hardware glitches. The iPad apparently does not charge with some PCs or USB hubs (we confirmed this in our own tests), and some have reported "dead pixel" problems where the screen shows one black or white dot that will not go away. In fact, our test unit has this problem. Another major concern is over app prices. Apple Keynote costs $9.99, and many apps cost that much or even up to $20 or $30 each. While a $2 purchase on the iPhone is trivial, for business users, paying $100 for just a handful of apps might make you think twice about the ROI.
Apple will likely work out the hardware snafus. And, the business models for apps will likely adjust to user demand -- app prices will either come down or new start-up developers will offer similar tools for a lower price, or even invent new business models for free business apps, such as a monthly charge to use the app or advertising that runs on the side of the screen (though we prefer the former).
The final analysis: the iPad is a winner for consumers. Whether it is a winner for business users is a complex question -- it may meet your needs today if the current app selection hits a sweet spot with your needs. The device itself is a sound laptop-killing option. Long-term, the device may change computing as we know it, and your keyboard and mouse will become ancient relics.