Apple’s iPad: can it rise to enterprise IT demands?

Apple wants the new iPad tablet to be a “third category” of devices. Will enterprise IT buy into that pitch?

After 90 minutes of Apple iPad superlatives, demonstrations, and slick videos, which didn’t quite mask a distinct sense of disappointment among his listeners on the Web, Apple CEO Steve Jobs ended his unveiling with the billion-dollar question: "Do we have what it takes to establish a third category of products?" Enterprise IT departments are trying to figure out how to answer him. 

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We polled a range of IT professionals, and a few analysts, to get their reactions to the announcement of the new Apple tablet, dubbed the iPad. Almost at once, it’s been labeled a big iPhone, though it doesn’t support cellular voice calls.

Enterprise assessments are all across the board, but in general most of those we talked with were intrigued enough to want to experiment with the iPad.

“We are already looking at what this may mean for our organization,” Jake Seitz, enterprise architect at The First American Corp. in Santa Ana, Calif. “What's interesting is the inclusion of the [Apple] office suite, iWorks, natively on the iPad. ...This seems to scream, 'enterprise never mind the fact that it’s only 9 bucks!' This coupled with a dock that supports an external keyboard and you have a very capable enterprise-ish device.”

Apple made much of the fact that iPad is designed in part as an e-reader, and that caught the attention of Ross McKenzie, Director of Information Technology for Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland.

“I’m excited about the prospect that they will be e-readers, but I’m not holding my breath that text publishers will take advantage of the platform yet,” he says. (He may not have to hold his breath: Apple has created an online bookstore, the iBook Store, which stocks titles from such publishing heavyweights as Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Hachette Book Group. You can order, pay, and download the titles online. A separate question is whether the titles will expand from bestsellers to more specialized texts that would be of interest to doctors and nurses.)

McKenzie sees a ready fit in both niche areas and personal productivity by exploiting iPad’s Web browsing capabilities. “Since all of our custom programming is Web-based,” he says, “there’s a strong possibility the tablets could become nice survey tools for our researchers and personal productivity tools for everyone.”

That likelihood seems based on his own experience as an iPhone user. “Personally, I already do more with my iPhone than I ever thought to do with a desktop or laptop. The small, specific applications drive the use,” he says.

That change, which may be what Apple is banking on, seems to spreading in the enterprise. “We’ve already noticed that people want computers that are small and closer to netbook size these days, and the tablet will only drive ‘needs’ in its direction when it becomes more mainstream, whether it’s Apple’s design, or a close competitor knock-off,” says Craig Bush, network administrator at Exactech, a maker of orthopaedic implant devices and related surgical instrumentation, in Gainesville, Florida. “Our people already like the smaller form factor Dells, and I can see people wanting tablets during meetings or presentations, possibly using one for travel.”

One of Bush’s concerns: despite the number of iPhone/iPad apps in the App Store, the application platform remains closed, compared to rivals like Google’s Android. “A lot of companies have to go through a lot of work to make apps for the iPhone now, and it can be quite expensive from what I’ve heard,” he says.

Precisely because the iPad is intended as a “third category” of mobile device, the enterprise and Apple has some education to do, says John Moore, CTO for Swimfish, a Danvers, Mass.-based consultancy offering business and technology services. “Enterprises will need to define, with Apple's help, where the fit for this new hardware exists, someplace between the mobile warrior living on the iPhone and the desk jockey working in the office on their PC,” he says.  “Getting this story clear is the first hurdle. Once this occurs, IT leaders will then need to work through issues like patch management, imaging, security/virus protection plans. 

Others remain skeptical that iPad represents a true third mobile category, unsure how fast its adoption will be. 

“There is a niche I can see being filled with students wanting to reduce the weight and bulk of a laptop,” says Brian Jones, manager of research and network engineering (and enthusiastic iPod Touch and iPod Nano user) at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University's Tech Communications Network Services unit in Blacksburg, Virginia. “And there are some pushes in the academic community toward tablet PC use in classroom instruction settings in an interactive mode….[But] I am not convinced this device can replace the need for a more complex computing device.”

The apparent lack of multi-tasking in the iPad might create a formidable barrier at least for users accustomed to routinely multi-tasking in notebook computers, such as creating a spreadsheet table or a chart, copying it onto a presentation application, and then e-mailing or sharing the result with others. “One iPhone app can't access another iPhone app’s files,” points out Jason Grigsby, co-founder of Cloudfour.com, in Seattle, Washington, where he’s the resident mobile and Web strategist. “How does that work with [the Apple] iWork [suite]? Can I create a chart in Numbers and then embed it in Pages or Keynote?”

And security and management remain top of mind, along with Apple’s relatively weak enterprise support, for nearly all those who talked with us. The iPhone has been winning over enterprise security skeptics.  In part, that’s because the level of security and management required for mobile devices varies widely from one company to the next.

“We require all VPN connections to utilize 2-factor authentications, and that has major security implications,” says Michael Kamens, Information Security Officer

WGBH Educational Foundation, Boston, Mass., which is, he says, a “big Apple user.” To make the iPad a fit for the enterprise, “Apple must offer better enterprise pricing, faster turnaround and a more open architecture to be a contender,” he says.

“I imagine management tools will come through Apple or a 3rd party, but I’m not sure it’s a major concern with Apple products,” says the Bloomberg School’s Ross McKenzie. “It certainly hasn’t been with the iPhones and with Macs to a much lesser extent than with PCs.”

Steve Job’s question -"Do we have what it takes to establish a third category of products?" - remains. How would you answer him? Join our discussion in comments.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for “Network World.” Follow John on Twitter. Subscribe to John's "On Wireless" blog. Denise Dubie covers network management and industry and career issues for "Network World." Follow Denise on Twitter. Subscribe to Denise's "Freestyle Software" blog.

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