You can already find lots of reviews of the Apple iPad. I'm not keen on most of them because none of the reviewers have been using the device for very long, so they're still in the honeymoon period and most of their observations and conclusions are speculative. I want to use the iPad for a while and then see what kinds of things I still use it for once the novelty wears off.
At that point, I'll write up a full TechRepublic product review, from a business and IT perspective (as always). But, between now and then I know that some of you will want to hear something about the iPad from TechRepublic so I'm going to start by sharing some of my first impressions.
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Let's look at why businesses and IT departments should keep an eye on the iPad, as well as the top reasons why it's safe for the corporate world to ignore it at this point.
Three reasons to love it
1. Insanely great battery life
There's almost nothing I like about netbooks (as you may have heard), but the one area where netbooks are most attractive is battery life. Some netbook makers advertise that their systems get up to 10 hours of battery life. In reality, the number is closer to 7-8 hours in most cases, but that's still enough to make a big difference on cross country flights in the U.S. and during international air travel.
The iPad does even better. Apple claims 10 hours of battery life. However, The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg reported that he got 11 hours, 28 minutes of battery during a period of time when he was heavily using the iPad. My initial experience has been similar. The iPad was first delivered about 12:30PM on Saturday. I used to the device off and on the rest of the day and never got the battery below 70%.
2. It's a briefcase + a whiteboard + a dashboard
While most of the demos and commercials for the iPad focus on playing games and watching videos, don't think for a second that this device is irrelevant for business users. And, no, I'm not talking about the word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation programs. I doubt you'll use those.
However, the iPad could allow you to skip the stack of newspaper and magazines and avoid that pile of reports and other long documents in your briefcase. Between specific apps, like those for USA Today and The New York Times, and the open Internet, the iPad is a great business reading device. And, with the third-party apps, the iPad is also a great device for reading long business documents such as PDFs and DOC files.
Business professionals will also like apps such as Ideate, which allows you to sketch ideas on a virtual whiteboard, save them as images, and then email them to your colleagues.
Another way for users to take advantage of the iPad's great LCD screen is to use it for checking business dashboards. Before long, I think we'll see more apps that help display specific data, but for now you can open Microsoft Excel files (again, with the help of third party apps) and pull up Web-based data such as Google Analytics in the Safari browser.
3. You've seen Star Trek, right?
Let's be honest, the iPad is an early adopter device at this point - probably very early. By the third generation iPad, Apple will likely have something pretty useful and functional. Nevertheless, using an iPad today feels like touching the technology of tomorrow. It is satisfyingly futuristic.
It makes you feel a bit like Jean Luc-Picard in the captain's quarters aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. In fact, there's reportedly even an iPad app forthcoming that will emulate the Star Trek PADD.
If you're a business leader, using the iPad could help you get a jump on the next stage of the evolution of computing. That could give you a competitive advantage by enabling you to better organize and consume important data.
Three reasons to ignore it
1. Imprisonment in the Apple ecosystem
While Apple's vertical integration of the hardware, software, and e-commerce platforms on the iPad is one of the things that makes it so easy to use, that simplicity comes at the price of being locked into the most draconian ecosystem in the technology world.
While some consumers are willing to give up a little freedom in return for a system that "just works," that's a much more difficult proposition for businesses.
There are times when a business may need to do something -- e.g. build a custom app, tweak a payment system, change configuration settings -- for a business reason. However, if you're locked into the Apple ecosystem then you quickly learn that the system can be extremely rigid and inflexible. Businesses, and especially IT departments, don't like that. It's one of the things that has kept Macs and iPhones out of many organizations. Apple is making strides to accommodate iPad deployment scenarios in business, but so far the company appears unlikely to open up its ecosystem.
2. Only one app at a time? Seriously?
Like the iPhone and the iPod Touch, the iPad can only run one application at a time (with a few exceptions like the iPod music app and Yahoo IM). This approach makes some sense on the iPhone, which struggles with processing power and battery life at times. However, it doesn't make sense with the iPad, which is surprisingly speedy and has plenty of battery life to spare, as mentioned above.
Most business people need to multitask when they're getting serious work done, so this aspect of the iPad definitely limits it as a laptop replacement. One thing to keep in mind is that the upcoming iPhone 4.0 operating system is rumored to finally add multitasking using an interface similar to Expose on Mac. We can only hope that's true and that the feature comes to the iPad at the same time.
3. It doesn't replace anything, yet
Despite all of the hype for this long-anticipated Apple device, the tablet itself remains an unproven form factor, with the failure of the Tablet PC over the past decade as proof positive. Tablets have only found usefulness and acceptance in a few niche vertical markets such as health care. Despite all that, users still remain keenly interested in the possibility of a great tablet, even if they're not quite sure what they would do with it.
The iPad certainly won't replace a smartphone for any business professionals. In a few rare cases, it may replace a laptop for people with light computing needs centered around the Web and email. However, the most likely scenario is that the iPad will become an add-on device in the same category as netbooks. People will still carry a smartphone and will still have a primary desktop or laptop. That leaves the iPad to become a more convenient computer used for light computing tasks that don't involve creating much content. Does that sound like a machine that many companies are going to be rushing to buy? No, I didn't think so, either.
The other alternative is that the iPad could be used in situations where business workers only need a few primary apps to do their jobs -- health care, transportation, point-of-sale, etc. But again, this tablet would have to succeed where other tablets have failed.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.