Aug 05 2010

Overnight Popularity

Apple's new iPad is an intriguing addition to the small business workforce.

Like its “I” predecessors, the Apple iPad has piqued the public’s imagination. After enduring pre-launch ridicule, as well as some post-launch grumbling over perceived shortcomings, the wireless tablet computer exceeded sales expectations when it debuted in early April, hitting the 2 million mark by the end of May.

Because the iPad hovers somewhere between a PC, a netbook and a content-consumption platform for e-books, video, music and gaming, consumers and students were thought to be its likeliest users. Quite unexpectedly, however, the small business community has embraced the device. Workers at companies serving an array of markets are lauding the iPad’s cordless portability, long battery life and impressive display, as well as the range of useful applications.

“Everyone is asking, is it a netbook or a PC? But it’s nothing like anything we’ve seen before,” says David Sparks, one of three attorneys at George & Shields, LLP in Irvine, Calif. Sparks bought the 64-gigabyte, Wi-Fi version of the iPad the first day it hit the market. “You just have to get one, fiddle with it and see how it fits into what you do.”

For Sparks, that means making client presentations, transporting reports as PDFs, running Apple’s iWork applications and creating diagrams for client discussions using OmniGraffle. For presentations, he uses Apple Keynote; a built-in VGA adapter provides a quick connection to a projector. For less formal meetings, clients hold the device and proceed through the slides as he talks.

“Spinning the laptop around on the desk always seemed Mickey Mouse to me,” he says of his old method for delivering pres­entations. With the iPad, they’re “more collaborative.”

On the downside, Sparks continues, the iPad doesn’t run Flash or support all fonts. Its processor is less powerful than a notebook’s, and it flattens 3D graphics to 2D.

Still, Sparks doesn’t consider these issues deterrents. “You have to learn a new way of working; you’re using your fingers instead of a keyboard or mouse,” he says, “but once you learn how to do it, it’s kind of fun.”

Vertical Apps Will Drive Adoption

Ezra Gottheil, senior analyst at Technology Business Research, believes the iPad will appeal mainly to small businesses with very mobile sales forces that want to interact with customers in a nonintrusive, attractive way. However, for general business use, “a laptop is still better,” he contends, and the familiarity of netbooks will continue to hold the advantage. Adoption will grow, he adds, once more dedicated vertical applications — such as estimating tools for insurers, sales kiosks for retailers and even medical applications — appear.

A recent Forrester Research report says tablet sales in the United States will overtake netbook sales by 2012 and will grow at a compound annual rate of 42 percent between now and 2015. While the devices have similar capabilities, the iPad’s ability to synchronize data across services will give it the upper hand, the report argues.

Tom Wanat, director of innovation at Hilltop Consultants in Bethesda, Md., is already ahead of that curve. He bought the 3G version of the iPad as soon as it was available. Six other people at the 25-employee IT consultancy also use the iPad, and “now it’s a big part of our day-to-day workflow,” he says.

Wanat prefers the iPad because it’s half the weight of his MacBook Air, which he sold; has “phenomenal” battery life; and requires fewer peripherals, such as power cables. “That’s what hits you right off the bat — you can go for days without charging it,” he says. He also highly values its tight integration with Microsoft Exchange.

The lack of file storage isn’t a problem, he says, because he uses Evernote, a cloud-based note-taking application that syncs data between his office PC and the iPad. “Everything I’m writing in terms of client notes gets sent back to the office instantly, without me having to do anything,” he says. He also uses QuickOffice Connect Mobile Suite for iPad.

The iPad’s inability to multitask is an issue, Wanat concedes. “There are times I feel I’m doing a lot of hopping back and forth between applications,” he says. But to the iPad’s credit, he adds, toggling between applications is quick.


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