There was a hush in the room when Apple CEO Steve Jobs (finally) took the wraps off the long-rumored Apple iPad in late January. Perhaps it was because the audience -- populated primarily by journalists and analysts -- realized this portable tablet would blur the lines between work and play, much like the iconic iPhone that came before it.

Now the iPad is available, and many are wondering if this digital device is truly suitable for small to mid-sized business -- or even a boon for it.

The basics

The iPad (from $499 for 16GB) is a thin, 9.7-inch touch-screen tablet, ideal for reading electronic books and digital newspapers, surfing the Web, reading e-mail, flicking through photos, watching videos, and playing games -- all via your fingertips instead of with a keyboard and mouse.

Sure, other manufacturers have launched WiFi-enabled tablets in the past -- aimed primarily at businesses -- but more often than not have proven bulky, slow, and limited in software. The iPad, on the other hand, is a svelte 1.5 pounds, powered by a 1GHz processor and out of the box works with most of the 150,000 plus applications ("apps") available at Apple's popular App Store (part of iTunes).

Built for business

A recent business survey conducted by Information Technology Intelligence Corp. (ITIC) found 42 percent of participants planned on purchasing an iPad within the first six to nine months. Only 14 percent said "no," leaving the remaining 44 percent as "possibly" or "undecided."

"Interestingly, the line that divides home life and corporate life has blurred considerably over the past few years," says Laura DiDio, a principal at ITIC, a research and consulting firm based in the suburban Boston area.

When asked how they'll use the iPad, 64 percent of respondents said they'd use the iPad for business, 31 percent for personal use, and 86 percent for both.

"Ten or 15 years ago you can be reasonably certain your IT department would issue you a desktop device that was more state of the art than what you had at home," says DiDio. "Now, consumers get more state of the art, feature-rich devices than what's issued by the company, and in many cases they can use them for work, too."

Top 5 reasons iPad is good for business

DiDio says there are a number of reasons why the iPad is good for business. Here are the top five reasons to consider an iPad for business:

  • Price (under $500)
  • Power (better than netbooks)
  • Portability (1.5 pounds, 10 hour battery)
  • Usability (home and business use, which fits today's telecommuting trend)
  • Functionality (150,000 apps and counting)

"With a list price that begins at $499, Apple has broken price barrier, making it appealing to consumers and businesses alike," explains DiDio. "Plus, the iPad has the performance and graphics capabilities not found in most netbooks."

Another advantage: many corporate workers are "road warriors" these days, adds DiDio, "from the smallest businesses all the way up to enterprise." The iPad's svelte 1.5-pound frame and 10-hour battery make it ideal for travelers and telecommuters alike.

"Many today juggle home and business life simultaneously, so while the iPad is great to keep the kids entertained in the backseat of the car, mom or dad can then edit a sales report when they reach their destination," says DiDio.

A wide range of applications also make the iPad very appealing to small and mid-sized businesses.

Not everyone agrees

Tim Bajarin, principal strategist at the Campbell, Calif.-based Creative Strategies research firm, says he recognizes Apple has added some productivity software to the overall iPad model, such as the iWorks programs, but still believes the iPad is more of a consumer device than a business tool.

"You saw Jobs demonstrate the iPad reclining in a chair because the iPad is optimized for a 'lean back' experience rather than a 'lean forward' one," explains Bajarin. "This is fine for browsing the Web, reading a book, or watching video, but business is more of a learn forward experience -- such as writing long e-mails and reports, or working on spreadsheets and presentations."

Bajarin says the success of the iPad in the workplace will also depend on the type of job at hand. "Those who need bigger screen real estate will stick with a PC monitor, such as those in graphic arts," says Bajarin, "but vertical markets -- such as hospitals, transportation, police and fire, and small medical clinics -- might find this tablet of use, where ultra portability is important."