Apple's iPad - The Third Device for Mobile UC

20 Jun 2010

When the iPad was first announced I was not overly impressed, and questioned Apple's ability to thrive in the table market where others had seen moderate success at best. The problem I had was figuring out what the iPad was, and more importantly, where would somebody use it. Was it a book reader, a web surfer, a game console, an emailer, or what? The iPad seemed to incorporate a Swiss Army knife range of capabilities providing a grab bag of functions that were already being done on a variety of other devices. When you added the fact this couldn't make phone calls, didn't have video and lacked components like a DVD player, where was this elegant new gadget going to fit?

Lacking a real keyboard, the iPad didn't seem to be a realistic replacement for a traditional laptop. On the other hand, the form factor (9.56" by 7.47" by .5" thick) meant it didn't fit in your pocket like a smartphone. Women who favor big purses could have an adequate means of transport, but for those of us who don't see the "man purse" as a budding fashion statement, what the heck was I supposed to do with this thing?

Then I tried one. Reams have been written on the iPhone's touch screen interface, but you haven't lived until you've experienced the iPad. One of my son's friends brought his over and we connected on our Wi-Fi network. This thing is just flat out exciting from the moment you touch it. I'm not an iPhone zealot, though the process of flicking through screens is fun and intuitive; those are two words you hear a lot when Apple products are discussed. When you put that same type of interface on a bigger screen (9.7" diagonal) the experience is just awesome. Whatever you're doing with it, it's just hard to put the iPad down.

The big question is, "What will enterprise users do with an iPad?", and my answer is simply, "Whatever they can!" It's not going to be a replacement for your smartphone that will go with you anywhere or for your laptop that will remain your "serious" computing platform, but it will undoubtedly carve out a position as an alternative or "Third" computing platform. My guess is that it will be used anywhere you'd be carrying a notebook (the paper kind) or a clipboard. The iPad will become the "carry around the work area" computing device, whether that work area is an office, a warehouse, a jobsite, or a health care facility. For those who don't want to lug a laptop home on the train, the iPad will provide an easy-to-handle device for processing emails (while listening to MP3s), and give you a way to catch up on your reading when you're tired of doing work.

Fulfilling this role in an enterprise environment will require a couple of important enhancements. First, the iPad will not be a replacement for your "serious" computing platform, so the ability to easily synch whatever you're doing on the iPad to the rest of your computing life will be key. Manual processes that involve remembering what emails, reports, contacts, etc. you need to copy over won't cut it. We'll need the same type of automatic over-the-air syncing we have with our BlackBerries today. A number of those things exist for the iPhone, but I still find most of them don't really deliver the full integration to the Outlook/Exchange environment business users require.

Secondly, the iPad will need better input capabilities. There is an optional keyboard, but that basically defeats the entire purpose. Business people record a lot of stuff like notes, drawings, and annotations, and many of us do that with a pen and paper. There are handwriting recognition programs for the iPhone and iPad like WritePad and Javox, but they don't seem to have captured the necessity for also recording the type of box-and-line diagrams we're so fond of in networking and other technical fields. The ability to capture and store handwritten information will allow us to use the iPad for real work, and not just for looking cool at Starbucks.

Basic handwriting recognition will be sufficient for simple tasks, but to deliver the type of compelling line of business applications that will drive mobile UC we will need the ability to embed handwriting recognition in other applications as well. Writing the same thing over and over is stupid, so what we will need are well-designed applications that allow a user to access information, to capture repetitive elements by tapping a set of pre-stored replies, but then add annotations in freehand. Of course, that may mean adding a stylus to the input experience, and hopefully someone will figure out that it has to be long enough to write comfortably and not one of those 3-1/2 inch torture instruments we have with the Palm Pilot.

Communications and collaboration will also be important, and the basic device comes with a built in microphone and speaker. We expect the next version of the iPad to include at least a front-facing video camera so it can be used to participate in videoconferences as well. How those work with the ever present Polycom conference phone will also be an important consideration.

In the end, it's the applications that will drive the product, but the user interface on the iPad is so compelling that people will go out of their way to find things to do with it. The first wave will likely be out-of-the-box horizontal applications, but the pressure will be on to develop line of business applications that take advantage of the unique features of the platform.

Apple will probably not have this space to themselves for long. The acquisition of Palm by HP means that the WebOS that failed to catch on in the smartphone market may get a second life in tablets. Nokia is reportedly developing a tablet, but given the way they have bungled the smartphone market, I'm not overly optimistic about a functional solution from that quarter. RIM's Storm has been a bust in the touchscreen market, but with their enterprise focus and strengths in the security and synchronizing with the wired environment, perhaps we could see a marketable offering from them as well. Finally, companies like Motorola who have carved out a successful business in the mobile computing market could have a play, but only if they can move their products out of that dead end known as the "Windows Mobile 6 environment."

The advance of computer and communications technologies has found us adopting countless devices that were almost unthinkable twenty years ago, and there is no reason to believe that trend will slow down. If anything, developments like mobile data services are accelerating the adoption curve. In some cases these devices simply provided a better alternative for something we were already using (PCs for word processors or typewriters, iPods for SonyWalkmen) while in other cases they were truly "solutions for a problem you didn't know you had." I think the iPad and similar tablet devices are going to fall into that latter category, and the impact in enterprise computing will be as big or bigger than the smartphone.


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