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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.

Apple has already addressed some early objections to the iPad as a business device. Only a week after it went on sale, the company announced an improved operating system for both the iPhone and iPad, available this fall, that will allow more than one application to run at a time. The data security of Apple’s mobile products, which had been considered inferior to the BlackBerry’s, will also be enhanced, with improved encryption capabilities and support for Cisco VPN network security.

Perhaps as significant, the new operating system will enable companies to download internally developed applications directly to employees’ company-issued devices. Until now, companies have had to either put such apps on Apple’s App Store in full public view, or conduct a work-around through Apple’s iTunes software.

Although Apple’s corporate presence is small, it has “a very significant first-mover advantage,” says Jenko. Still, IDC analyst David Daoud counsels potential buyers to wait and see what competitors come out with. “I think later in the year you will see some cool new products hitting the market at lower price points,” he says.

David McCann is senior editor for technology at CFO.

Is There an App for That?

Like the vastness of space, the number of applications for smart phones almost defies comprehension. Apple’s App Store offered 185,000 third-party applications as of mid-April, and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM) now claims 250,000 registered developers (it doesn’t even bother to count the applications). Corporate users can also create their own custom applications for those and other smart-phone platforms, such as Windows Mobile, Android, and Symbian.

What has been the net effect on businesses? Not much, since the vast majority of smart-phone applications are aimed at consumers. “We’re still not seeing many companies rolling out smart-phone apps in any broad kind of way,” says Julie Palen, senior vice president of mobile-device management for Tangoe, a telecommunications expense management firm.

And the applications that businesses use most frequently often disappoint because they were designed for computers. “I can run Salesforce.com on my BlackBerry, but the experience isn’t very good, so I’m going to do the minimum,” Palen says.

But Accenture consultant Gregory Jenko says consumers’ enthusiastic adoption of the iPhone will spark a paradigm shift. “The more people play with their apps, the more they start thinking about the great work-related things they could do if they had access to company information,” he says. “The use of smart-phone technologies for the workforce is going to start to take off.”

Indeed, even RIM — whose BlackBerry holds a wide lead in the enterprise market and for which there are, by far, the most applications designed for businesses — credits Apple with raising corporate consciousness of smart phones’ potential. “The iPhone has done wonders in creating awareness,” says Mike Kirkup, RIM director of developer relations.

Kirkup points to some recently developed applications for BlackBerry as evidence of increasing business applicability for smart phones. One, for instance, sends alerts to the mobile devices of security guards. A more sophisticated app has been developed for internal use by toolmaker Ridgid (part of Emerson Professional Tools). It improves sales-call volume and allows salespeople to retrieve corporate information by smart phone.

As smart phones become the preeminent mobile device, employees may finally find that, yes, there is a business app for that. — D.M.

Some Popular Business-Related Apps

Skype Mobile. Allows users to make Skype calls without using phone minutes

Xora Mobile Workforce Manager. A combination GPS and time clock that lets workers punch in, punch out, keep track of overtime, and know when to turn left or right

Telenav Track. Lets employers actually see workers, vehicles, and other equipment in the field; automates field-data capture and integrates with back-office systems

iTerminal. Enables mobile personnel to accept credit-card payments

mbPointer. Lets an iPhone double as a presentation pointer

iXpenseIt. Offers mobile expense recording and budget tracking; users enter data and take a picture of the receipt

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