By Don Willmott
Here we go again. The Apple hype machine is ready to roll into town and blow its horn. Loudly. Apple is accepting iPad pre-orders, and it sounds like the first batch of several hundred thousand units is already spoken for, so don’t bother pitching your tent outside the Apple store in anticipation of Saturday’s big launch. A big Apple rollout is fun. It’s exciting. It’s intriguing. And in this case it’s worth some thought. Will the iPad find success as a serious business tool? Will it find its way into IT’s 2011 budget plans? Should it?
Apple says yes- sort of. If you happened to catch any of the January 27th rollout show, you may recall that Steve Jobs and his team talked about iWork for iPad, a suite of business apps including keynote for presentations, Numbers for spreadsheets, and Pages for word processing. Each is priced at $10. Apple promises compatibility with Office documents, which is vital, and it’s easy to imagine how compelling it could be to whip out an iPad in a meeting and flip though a slide show using multitouch motions to move slides around. A connector ($29) will also let you send presentations to a projector.
To do any serious writing or number crunching however, you’ll need to buy the $69 Keyboard Dock. Hook that up and you’ve got what’s essentially a very cool netbook priced from $570 to $900 depending on capacity and whether you opt for a 3G service plan (Apple expects most iPads to be used primarily with WiFi).
But let’s not kid ourselves. The iPad is not a netbook, and it can’t do many of the things that IT demands all the systems under its control can do. Let’s start with multitasking, or the lack thereof. Even the tiniest netbook can run several apps simultaneously. The iPad can’t. There is no support for enterprise-wide push technology, so IT would have difficulty implementing security lockdowns and e-mail systems. In fact, Apple says nothing about supporting Microsoft Exchange, which would seem a pretty basic prerequisite for any serious enterprise deployment. Maybe Apple will go farther down this path once it sees how the initial sales go.
Application developers will certainly write vertical apps for business use, but you’ll have to consider how and where the iPad will be used. What kind of data entry is required? Would a tablet/stylus be more efficient than the iPad’s finger-driven input? Will WiFi be consistently available, and if not, are you willing to foot the $30/month bill for 3G service from AT&T, which is currently not the nation’s most respected 3G network? Will the iPad be sturdy enough to be lugged around in the field?
One way to look at the iPad is to reflect on the trajectory of the iPhone since it hit the market. Three years after its launch, it hasn’t made serious inroads into the enterprise, where the BlackBerry still holds dominion (although it had better watch its back because Android-based devices are looking better and better every day). I happen to love my iPhone, and I’ve even been to parties where the partygoers pull out their iPhones and huddle around the WiFi to compare apps, look at photos, and use Shazam to identify the music blasting in the room.
But my overall impression is that when all those people head back to work on Monday, they’re clutching Blackberrys in their hands as they ride the elevator. Forrester Research backs me up, noting that only 20 percent of businesses support the iPhone. Apple has had phenomenal success without catering to the basic needs of Fortune 1000 businesses, and there’s no big indication that’s it’s going to change its strategy with the iPad. At least not yet.
My advice: don’t watch Apple. Watch the independent developers who hustle to build iPad apps for business purposes, especially those that focus on mobile data entry. Ultimately they’re the ones who will help the iPad find a happy home in the workplace. After creating 150,000 iPhone/iPad apps, they’re just getting warmed up. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.