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Slate Expectations

Will the iPad and other tablet computers redefine mobile computing?

This year’s biggest buzz-generating gadget, Apple’s iPad, has beaten even the rosiest sales forecasts. Domestic demand for the snazzy tablet computer topped one million units in the month following its April 3 debut. While critics complained that the iPad is both less than a phone and less than a computer, consumers flocked to purchase one as soon as it became available.

Will the same hold true for companies? Although the iPad won’t rewrite the rules for corporate mobile computing anytime soon, there are many reasons why companies may want to take a look at what such devices can do today. Indeed, the world is about to become inundated not only with iPads but also with a host of competitors, as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Dell, Motorola, and Lenovo Group all ready their own thin, touch-screen, multimedia tablets (or “slates”).

Corporate purchases of the new technology will likely start at the top. Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi says she expects the iPad to initially gain traction in companies the same way the BlackBerry and Apple’s iPhone did: at the board and senior-executive levels. “It won’t be for everyone, but high-fliers will see it as a key to what they do,” she says.

But the iPad is not a phone. That might make its cost — $499 to $829, depending on memory and connectivity options (not to mention a monthly fee for 3G Internet access) — steep for a company that has already deployed cell phones to mobile workers. And it doesn’t have nearly the computing power of a $300 netbook, let alone memory-card slots, USB ports, productivity applications, or other common PC features.

But the iPad is sleeker than a netbook, measuring a half-inch thick and weighing 1.5 pounds, and offers sharper graphics. Also, its battery life, 10 hours, is twice that of the average laptop, allowing a full day’s work with no recharge. Those attributes suit the device for a variety of potential business uses.

For instance, Gregory Jenko, who heads the mobile systems integration practice at Accenture, says he is “actively having discussions with clients” about the iPad’s possibilities for sales. Pharmaceutical companies in particular are looking hard at the device, he notes. “The pharmaceutical sales folks will absolutely not pull out a laptop for a discussion with a doctor,” he says. “As soon as you flip up the lid, you put up a wall between you.” (Doctors, in fact, may be the ideal market for the iPad; in one survey, more than one in five said they plan to buy one this year.)

Creative industries like advertising, media, and fashion — already heavy users of Apple’s Macintosh computers — may especially appreciate the iPad’s graphics quality and portability, Milanesi says. And retailers “are going to flock to it,” predicts Gene Cornell, owner of Cornell-Mayo Associates, a vendor of software for retail stores. The device would enable salespeople at high-end chains like Saks Fifth Avenue and Nieman Marcus to have customers’ shopping histories and preferences at their fingertips as they escort customers around the store.

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