With more than 15 million sold, Apple's iPad has become a favorite among skinny-jean hipsters and suit-and-tie executives alike. With the release of a faster, sleeker iPad 2, expect to see even more of the devices in coffee shops, on airplanes and everywhere in between. But despite its mainstream success, questions have always lingered about whether the popular tablet is a true laptop substitute -- especially for the business set.
"We find it's a good fit when a person needs immediate and mobile access to information," says James Sinclair, a principal at Los Angeles-based hospitality OnSite Consulting and an iPad user. Sinclair cautions that entrepreneurs need to approach the iPad with clear business intentions. "Remove the cool factor from the equation and instead focus on what function it can serve and whether the ROI is better than cheaper or more available platforms."
The iPad's popularity may be traceable to the rise of smartphones. "Eyesight is an issue. Fine motor skills are an issue. The larger iPad puts the smartphone technology into a larger viewing and usage platform, broadening the user base that can fully benefit from the tool and its technology," says Louis W. Ayoub, owner of IntelliTechs, a Tampa, Fla.-based information-technology services firm. Take an iPad on a plane, prep your presentations, let your customers order from one and customize the device to fit your business.
How can you get the most out of your iPad and help improve the bottom line? Here are five things you need to know.
1. Make it your mobile companion.
The iPad can take mobile entrepreneurs one step closer to a laptop-free existence. The small size -- the iPad 2 is even slimmer than its predecessor -- instant-on feature and long battery life make it easier to deal with than a bulky laptop. "It allows me to travel light on one- or two-day trips where I don't expect to have any text-intensive tasks. Moreover, instant access to my cloud for information and data allows me to walk into meetings paperless, but perfectly prepared," Sinclair says. He uses the Shareplus app to stay in touch with his Microsoft Sharepoint files. "It gives me access to every client database including all tasks, communications, contacts and, most importantly, all files that relate to the client," Sinclair says. That makes the iPad a good fit for businesses that have already migrated data online for easy mobile access. The iPad 2's cameras and FaceTime app make videoconferencing over Wi-Fi a compelling possibility for on-the-go entrepreneurs.
2. Tackle your business tasks.
Before you spend between hundreds on an iPad, determine what you want to be able to do with it. "For light tasks, it's perfect, for writing detailed documents or software intensive programs, it makes no sense," Sinclair says. You might not want to compose a novel on it or crunch a huge database, but you can easily handle jobs such as editing word-processing documents using the very capable Pages app or organizing notes and ideas with Evernote. The costs of the apps themselves are very reasonable. "Show me an expensive Windows application and I'll show you an inexpensive alternative in the Apple App Store," Ayoub says.
3. Hand it off to customers.
Image may not actually be everything, but it means a lot. Businesses that want to project a forward-thinking, cutting-edge persona are adopting iPads as tools for customers. That can range from using the iPad as a wine list in a restaurant to offering branded iPad apps that show off retail wares. "Any company using this latest tool is going to appear current, relevant and clever -- all good things in a competitive environment. It helps that Apple has heavily marketed and publicized the iPad. Nearly everyone knows what it is when they see it," Ayoub says. Sinclair has seen a lot of iPad interest from businesses in the hospitality sector. Restaurants have been quick to pick up on the device as a way to deliver menus, expand ordering capabilities and give customers more information about food and beverages.
4. Accessorize for your needs.
The Apple-related accessory market is in high gear. (See our story on the iPad boom for accessory makers.) That means you can find all sorts of add-ons to customize your iPad for your business. For those of you who don't want to give up on the laptop experience, check out an external keyboard like the Apple iPad Keyboard dock or the Apple Wireless Keyboard. Either one costs about $70. Mobile sales professionals can share the love with a dock connector to VGA adapter for making presentations. Along with the iPad 2, Apple unveiled an HDMI video out adapter cable for greater flexibility when presenting.
Of course, apps are still the ultimate business accessories. Enjoy all your iPhone favorites on the comfort of a larger screen or take advantage of iPad optimized apps like PrintCentral for printing and Instapaper for saving and reading Web pages. "If the iPad doesn't fit your business needs out of the box, either you or someone in your respective industry is sure to create an app that will make it fit," Ayoub says. (Check out more enticing iPad accessories in our previous article about pimping your iPad.)
5. Don't get too distracted.
It may be tempting to take down a few zombies or fight your way through a dungeon in your down time, but beware of getting sidetracked by entertainment apps. "Don't download Angry Birds," Sinclair says. "Understand what tasks and purposes the iPad is supposed to solve." He initially had to concentrate his thinking around the iPad from shiny new toy to serious business tool. He stays focused by exploring business apps and looking for ways to match the iPad with the needs of his clients. Stock up on the apps that help make your business run and keep your productivity intact. Keep the games to a minimum.
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 3/2/11.