5 Ways to Use an iPad for Small Business

Wednesday May 5th 2010 by Gerry Blackwell
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Although it was designed primarily as a consumer product, the iPad is finding its way into the workforce. We look at five different business scenarios where the iPad could earn its keep.

Early in the iPad era -- a few weeks ago -- a debate raged in the tech blogosphere about whether Apple’s new tablet computer could be used as a mobile tool for business. That debate has pretty much died down, and the reason is simple.

Whatever the iPad’s technical merits or shortcomings – and it has both – and not withstanding that Apple designed it primarily as a consumer product, it’s clear people will use it for business. Even if it’s only employees using their personal iPads for work-related activities.

But is there a case for small businesses actually buying iPads for their employees? We think there is. So does Mark Tauschek, director of IT research at Info-Tech Research Group, a research and consulting firm that serves small-medium enterprises.

“Some people don’t see it,” Tauschek said of the clients he’s talked to about the iPad. “But we do -- in certain circumstances. And we’ve had a fair amount of interest on this from other clients.”

Info-Tech helped us identify five compelling ways that small business can use the iPad (see below), but Tauschek pointed out that it also has considerable appeal as a general-purpose business tool -- for e-mail and work-related Web browsing at the very least.

The iPad: A Jack of Some Trades

The iPad isn't appropriate technology for every business…small or otherwise. Nor is it suitable for every employee. Still, Tauschek argued that in certain cases, the mobile device makes a compelling proposition.

 “It's a pound-and-a-half device that gives you ten hours of battery life," he said. "It’s very fast, it has very good multitouch. And a lot of business apps are already available for it.”

Citrix Receiver for the iPad from Citrix Systems also lets companies use the device as a thin client to remotely access applications on Windows servers or desktops -- on a local network or through a VPN connection, over Wi-Fi or 3G.

This doesn’t mean the iPad is a panacea. “One thing to keep in mind is that slate computers don’t replace anything,” Tauschek said. “The iPad is not a smartphone. It can’t replace a desktop or a laptop. It’s not meant for heavy content creation. It’s more for content consumption or light content creation.”

So what kinds of workers could benefit most from using an iPad?

Mobile Service Technician

Some service technicians already use mobile apps on smartphones to communicate with the office, to receive dispatches, report on work completed and sometimes to process payments. Mobile dispatch applications improve productivity and streamline data flows, eliminating rekeying and resulting errors. They can also speed payment of bills.

The iPad’s 10-inch screen makes it that much easier for big-fingered techs to navigate these applications, read the dispatch information and key in the minimal amounts of text they typically need to send.

iPad screen shot; mobile device
The Apple iPad with keyboard dock.
(Click for larger image)
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As Tauschek noted, many technicians carry dog-eared, out-of-date repair manuals in their trucks to refer to when onsite. One of the iPad’s strengths is its e-reader capability. Storing repair manuals on the iPad, or making them available online, means they won’t get lost, mutilated or out of date, he said. Manuals could also now include animated or video demonstrations.

We haven’t seen an iPad app specifically for service techs yet, but we’d be surprised if one didn’t appear before long.

Potential Downside: Typing with an iPad is easier than with a smartphone, but it's still not ideal. The iPad is not a phone, and it has no camera, so it's not a fit for mobile techs that need a camera to send pictures of problems back to experts at the office.

Health Care Clinician

One hospital in California has already announced plans to equip clinicians with iPads. It was attracted by the long battery life, portability and wireless connectivity -- ideal for doctors on the move all day around a hospital or campus.

The hospital will use the iPads for e-mail and other standard computing tasks, but will also have access to server-based applications using Citrix Receiver to look at X-ray images, EKG results and other patient monitoring programs. Medical images will show well on the iPad’s ten-inch, high-resolution screen.

Small medical clinics could also benefit in some additional ways.

Many clinics have either switched, or are in the process of switching, to electronic records systems to replace cumbersome paper-based patient records. Doctors and nurses now use local networks to access patient records, medical images, pharmacological and other reference information.

Most clinics install computers in each examination room to support these new systems, but the iPad may be a better alternative. Clinicians won’t have to log in to the computer in each examination room as they move from patient to patient. They can carry the iPad with them everywhere.

Desktop computers also place a barrier between doctor and patient. Often the doctor is looking at the screen and typing rather than engaging with the patient. An iPad would eliminate some of that distance.

Potential Downside: The already-noted difficulty typing lots of text.

Mobile Sales Person

The case for mobile sales people using iPads underlines Tauschek’s point that a slate computer doesn’t really replace any other device. Road warriors will likely still need a laptop, and they’ll certainly still need a phone, but the iPad could “definitely bridge the gap for sales people,” he said.

It will mainly come in handy when they visit customers and want to make computer-assisted presentations. Smartphone screens are too small for this, and in many situations, laptops are unwieldy. They can also place a barrier between the sales person and the customer.

The iPad is the just-right device for these situations, Tauschek believes. And Apple’s iWork personal productivity suite for the iPad already includes Keynote, a generally well-reviewed if ‘lite’ presentation authoring tool.

Some mobile sales people may even be able to do most of their computing on an iPad, especially if they use Web-based small business CRM software such as Salesforce.com. (See these Salesforce community blog posts on the subject of what the iPad could mean to users.)

Potential Downside: Most road warriors will need a more expensive 3G model. Data input will be an issue for some, although Apple does sell a physical keyboard that they could keep in the car for typing up longer-form notes after a meeting.

Retail Associate

Tauschek was struck by the way Apple Store associates use iPhones housed in holders that integrate barcode scanning and credit card authorization functions. The associates can complete simple transactions right on the floor.

“[The iPhone] might not be adaptable to a lot of retail outlets,” he said. “But the [iPad's] form factor could be perfect.”

The business case gets better when stores are very busy, such as at Christmas. “If you say, ‘Look, you can turn two or three store associates into mobile checkouts so those customers don’t have to queue up,’ I think that’s pretty compelling,” Tauschek said.

Associates could also use the iPad to check inventory or pricing without having to go to a fixed computer station or cash register, and even to show customers images, video demonstrations or reviews of products.

Potential Downside: Security. You wouldn’t want associates to put an iPad down even for an instant, or it might be gone.

Real Estate Agent

This is another instance where the iPad’s strengths -- screen size and quality, mobility, battery life -- make it a viable solution where alternative technologies are really not satisfactory.

Imagine this scenario: an agent is out with a client and they find themselves in a neighborhood the agent hasn't yet researched. Does the client want to see what is available? Sure.

The agent could use a smartphone to connect to an MLS or company Web site to find appropriate properties, and some do, but the screen is too small to show the client property information effectively. She could also use a laptop, as some do, but laptops are awkward to use in a car and require a 3G modem and power adapter.

A 3G iPad may again be the just-right solution for the problem, Tauschek said. “I think it would also probably be pretty impressive to the client if his agent passes an iPad to him to look at property information -- although that may be a novelty that won’t last.”

Real estate agents are just one example of professional services workers who could benefit from the iPad’s presentation capabilities -- and its possibly short-lived ability to wow customers. Consultants, accountants and others may be able to use the technology in similar ways, Tauschek said.

The iPad may also be the ideal solution, for example, for mobile executives who mainly need to check e-mail, respond briefly, browse the Web and look at online company information. It’s worth noting that at least three makers of business intelligence (BI) software -- MeLLmo, QlikTech and MicroStrategy -- have announced support for iPad.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

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