How Apple's iPad Fits into the Office

Sure, the iPad is a great device for Web surfing, book reading, and movie watching. But it's also getting a lot of interest in corporations as a possible business device for field forces, nurses and doctors in hospitals, and knowledge workers in the office and on the go.

That interest is obvious from the top iPad downloads from the Apple App Store, where Citrix Receiver, an app that makes the iPad a portal to server-based apps such as Microsoft Office and SharePoint, has stayed in the top five almost every day. Also in that top-downloads list are Apple's iWork productivity trio (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) and two Microsoft Office-compatible productivity apps (Quickoffice Mobile Connect Suite and DataViz Documents to Go Premium).

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I decided to see how well the iPad could fit into a business environment. The short answer: awkwardly, but with lots of promise. (Note that all the apps mentioned here are available through InfoWorld's "no-junk business iPhone and iPad app finder" Web page.)

The iPad is very portable and has long battery life (six to eight hours in my experience, although the more networking you do via Wi-Fi, 3G, or Bluetooth, the less time you get). So it is very appealing as a laptop replacement, at least for short trips. For many users, it can indeed replace a laptop. Which users? Certainly those whose lives revolve around email, Web access, and basic office productivity work. For other users, it depends greatly on the software availability for your work tasks.

Here's what you can do, and what could get in your way.

The iPad Software Issue
If you're editing or commenting on documents, reviewing and adjusting spreadsheets, and reviewing and updating presentations, you'll find that either the $15 Quickoffice or the $15 Documents to Go will do the trick. But outside of dire needs, I wouldn't suggest you try to create complex documents, spreadsheets, or presentations with either; the tools aren't there and the lack of mouse support makes fine control difficult. Apple's $30 iWork suite is harder to use due to a too-spare interface, plus only its Pages app can export to an Office-compatible format for your colleagues' use.

If you do need to run the real Microsoft Office suite or other corporate apps for which there is no iPad version (IT management tools, route-delivery planning apps, electronic medical records access software, credit-scoring apps, and all those kinds of vertical programs), that's where the free Citrix Receiver app comes in. It's a thin client app for Citrix-based terminal services, so you need a Wi-Fi connection to work with it. (You can use 3G but it is slower.) If your company has already deployed Citrix thin clients for remote access to secured applications, using it on an iPad is a no-brainer. The app does a good job translating touch movements to mouse movements, although because Windows and its desktop apps weren't designed with touch in mind, you may have difficulty accurately clicking buttons and other controls -- you may have to zoom in for controls such as the close box, for example.

Of course, deploying thin client apps on the back end is no trivial task, so if your firm is not using the technology already, it's unlikely it will invest in it just for iPad (and future Android tablet) users.

The other option could be to use cloud-based apps, such as Google Docs. But probably not. Google Docs works poorly on an iPad, since you can't interact with the spreadsheet directly as you can on a PC. Instead, you have to click an Edit button for each row, whch opens windows for each cell that you then work on, and click Submit to update. Likewise, in a Drupal website editor, you can't use the rich text facilities, and instead have to contend with a big block of HTML code to write or edit. It's very tedious and difficult.

The culprit is incompatibility between Web apps and the iPad's mobile Safari browser, which doesn't support all HTML attributes such as contenteditable that Web apps use to make fields directly accessible to users. Plus mobile Safari doesn't support Java, so Java Web clients won't work (most AJAX ones should, though). Until Apple makes the mobile Safari browser equal to desktop Safari, using cloud apps on the iPad will be a hit-or-miss proposition.

The iPad Data-Access Issue
One real difference under the hood between most mobile OSes and desktop OSes is that mobile OSes aren't based on a file view of the world, as PCs are. On a PC, you navigate to a folder (directly or through a shortcut) then launch an application (directly or by opening an associated data file). Folders and files are universal, and apps can work with them across your PC and network, ignoring files in incompatible formats. In mobile, the view is app-centric, so you must start by launching an app, which then has access only to data (files) in its partition (or sandbox) on the mobile device. Sharing data among apps means the apps have to move the data between them directly or through an OS-level API.

That leaves three main ways to access data on an iPad: through email, through a cloud service such as Box.net or Dropbox, or through an app designed to be a file sharer via Wi-Fi (of which there are dozens for the iPad). That means you need to think differently about working with files. You don't have files on your iPad that any app can access. Instead, you have apps that may, but probably do not, share their data with other apps.

For most people, email and cloud storage services are the way to go to access files -- though it means having to remember to send the attachment or load it to the cloud service from your PC before you head out with just your iPad. The Wi-Fi file-sharing apps do work, but both the iPad and the PC have to be on the same wireless network, and that may be an issue in many corporate environments that use firewalls, virtual LANs, and the like.

More and more apps support the iPad iOS' Open In facility, which lets them register as compatible with certain file types. Apps such as the built-in Mail client then check that registry and, when you tap a file attachment, provide a list of compatible apps to open the attachment in. Quickoffice and Documents to Go both do that, for example. Many apps still don't, but that will change over time.

The iPad's iOS doesn't support Zipped files, which many attachments are converted into by their mail server to save on bandwidth and mail archive space. Fortunately, a great little 99-cent app called ZipThat for the iPad (but not for the iPhone or iPod Touch, unfortunately) unzips mail attachments and lets you open the unzipped file in a program such as Quickoffice or Documents to Go. Basically, it uses the Open In facility to get the zipped file from Mail, then checks the file registry to see what other apps can open the unzipped versions, in a double hand-off.

If you use cloud storage services, you'll find they use essentially the same mechanism to share files. That means an app like Quickoffice or Documents to Go will have a facility to check these services and download any files you choose into their sandbox, so they can work on them. Of course, downloading a PowerPoint presentation this way within Quickoffice (for example) makes it available only to Quickoffice, so you need to be careful about version control. Get in the habit of uploading changed versions quickly, so the next app you access the file from has the latest version.

There is a fourth way to get some data onto an iPad: You can drag PDF files into iTunes' iBooks pane on your PC or Mac and have them synced to the iBooks app on your iPad for viewing there. (You need to have iBooks 1.1 or later installed on the iPad and have synced the iPad at least once after installing it for iTunes to display the iBooks pane.) Too bad you can't do the same for other types of data, such as Office files for use in Quickbooks or Documents to Go.

The iPad Input and Output Issue
The move to smartphones and slates brings with it a big I/O gap: The peripherals we use every day are much larger and thus easier to use than what a portable device has. The iPad's screen and virtual keyboard are plenty big enough for casual work, but not for all-day use or more complex applications. So the ability to tap into external peripherals is key to broad business usage.

Keyboards. I find it very easy to touch-type on the iPad's virtual keyboard -- much easier than on the iPhone or iPod Touch. One tip, though: If you type fast, as I do, disable the Zoom feature in the Settings app's Accessibility section. By default, tapping the screen with three fingers simultaneously causes it to zoom in (a feature for the visually impaired), and having that happen unexpectedly when your fingers strike within microseconds of each other as you type can be very disconcerting.

If you get the $50 Apple iPad case (which I strongly recommend), you'll find it not only protects the device but makes a perfectly angled "keyboard tray" for the iPad, so it's even easier to type on a desktop or other work surface. The typing and viewing angle are just right for most people, both on a work surface and on your lap.

For text input, Apple offers two external options. You can use the Bluetooth-based $69 Apple Wireless Keyboard (or any compatible one, such as those sold for use with Macs), or you can use the $89 Apple iPad Keyboard Dock. Neither is quite right, though the Apple Wireless Keyboard is a bit better. (You can also get some USB keyboards to work through Apple's $30 iPad Camera Connection kit, though Apple won't support such use and could disable it in future iOS updates.)

The issues with the keyboard dock are that you can't also connect the iPad into a larger screen (as you can if you use a Bluetooth keyboard), and your iPad won't fit in the dock if you use the Apple (or any) iPad case; removing the iPad from the case is a bit of a chore, due to its nonslip surface and form-fitting design. But you do get keys or iPad-specific functions, such as jumping to the Home screen and doing a Spotlight search.

The issue with the wireless keyboard is that it lacks those dedicated iPad keys. And there are no shortcuts to access these features, either, in the iOS. Plus, the iPad's various office productivity apps mysteriously don't use keyboard shortcuts for formatting such as boldface and italics, nor do they have shortcuts for paging up and down within a document (Apple has no Page Up, Page Down, Home, or End keys on its iPad-compatible keyboards, due to the company's historic disdain for non-mouse-based navigation). You have to use on-screen controls instead.

That means you need to keep the iPad close enough to tap on its screen for those functions that the wireless keyboard doesn't support. If you want the iPad screen to be at a more monitor-like height when using the wireless keyboard, and still keep the Apple iPad case on, consider getting Griffin Technology's $30 Loop for iPad stand.

Keep in mind that the Apple wireless keyboard is very thin and light, so it could easily travel with you. An iPad, keyboard, and 10-watt power supply together weigh less than 3 pounds -- less than half the weight of a laptop and its power supply -- and the iPad items together take less room as well.

Mice. The iPad's touchscreen is sensitive enough for navigating the device and even moving the text cursor in your documents, thanks to aids such as the magnifying glass that appears when you are moving the text cursor. But a mouse would be a better input mechanism for graphical tasks, from flowcharting to photo retouching. And a mouse would be better when using thin client and cloud apps whose UIs assume a mouse. A touch UI is great, but touchscreens' sensitivity is not yet as fine as a mouse's.

Unfortunately, you can't use a USB or Bluetooth mouse with an iPad. Enabling Bluetooth mice would make the iPad much closer to being a laptop replacement -- which is perhaps what Apple fears, even though a fully loaded iPad costs almost the same ($830) as an entry-level MacBook ($999).

Printing. Then there's output. A common output need is printing. Fortunately, several iPad/iPhone apps allow printing via Wi-Fi to wirelessly enabled printers. Of course, both the iPad and printer have to be on the same wireless network. Even more apps use your Mac or PC as a print server, but that means being near the desktop computer or the Wi-Fi network it's on when you want to print, which won't help you elsewhere, such as at client offices. The iPad really needs a native printing facility (which Apple CEO Steve Jobs hinted was coming, in response to a question at the recent Worldwide Developers Conference).

Display. Many tasks need far more working room than the iPad's screen provides, especially given that the virtual keyboard takes nearly half of the screen space when the device is in landscape mode (as it is when using the Apple iPad case as a keyboard tray). For a larger display, you can connect the iPad to an external monitor, projector, or VGA-equipped TV screen using Apple's pricey, $30 iPad VGA connector cable -- and you get more pixels, the full 1024 by 768 pixels of a typical 17-inch monitor.

But -- and this is huge -- it works only with a handful of iPad apps: the $10 iWork Keynote, the built-in Photos (and only when displaying a slideshow), the built-in YouTube app (as well as when watching YouTube videos in the Safari browser), and the built-in Videos app. So you can't use it to do email, browsing, or other work you'd want to view on a larger monitor. That's nuts. Imagine the Apple engineering hours spent to have the iPad turn video-out on and off based on what application is running. Another sign of Apple's possible fear that the iPad could threaten laptop sales.

I fantasize about a future in which monitors are Wi-Fi-enabled (as some projectors and TVs already are), so I can connect the iPad to one without a cable -- assuming Apple stops blocking the video-out signal from most apps, of course.

We Need a Docking Station. The bottom line is that you can use only one wired peripheral at a time with an iPad, and just a handful of wireless ones.

There are no hubs that let you plug in multiple devices for simultaneous use by the iPad -- as we're all used to with USB peripherals. That means you'll likely be plugging and unplugging various devices from the iPad -- the VGA connector when you want to show a keynote presentation on a projector or watch a video or slideshow on a TV screen, the keyboard dock when you want to do a lot of typing, the Camera Connection kit when you want to transfer photos, the sync cable when you want to sync your iPad to your computer, or the power adapter when you want recharge the iPad. Even if you use a Bluetooth keyboard, you'll still be switching among multiple wired devices.

That single-minded connectivity needs to change. Ideally, you'd have an iPad dock at your desk with a VGA connector, a power connector, a camera connector, USB/keyboard connector, an eventual USB/mouse connector, an eventual USB/printer connector, and a connector to your PC or Mac for syncing via iTunes.

Expanding the iPad's Bluetooth capabilities could help, such as by supporting wireless iTunes/file exchange with PCs and Macs, in addition to the current headset (for talking and listening to music and videos) and keyboard support. And as previously noted, Bluetooth mouse support would be handy. Wi-Fi file-syncing would be really great.

The iPad Network Issue
Both my work and home offices have Wi-Fi networks, so it's trivial for me to connect to the Internet and other network resources from my iPad where I usually work. But Wi-Fi is the only network technology you can use with an iPad, so if you're in a wired-only office, you're isolated unless you want to pay for lots of 3G data usage. Wi-Fi is increasingly common where businesspeople travel -- hotels, airports, conference facilities, building lobbies, and so on -- but it's not so common in older buildings' cubicles and offices. So adding an Ethernet port to the kind of hub-style dock I suggested earlier would be a good idea to get broader corporate adoption.

Plus, even where businesses have Wi-Fi, chances are very great they're not carrying even the majority of the network load. If people were to use iPads (or smartphones or other tablets) as a primary computing device across wide swaths of business, the internal wireless LANs would probably not be able to handle it, especially if Wi-Fi monitors became common (that may argue for using a technology such as UWB instead for wireless display docking).

The iPad Power Issue
The final consideration for using an iPad in a work environment is power. Although the iPad uses much less power than a PC (for example, the iPad comes with a 10W power supply, versus 85W for a MacBook Pro), it uses much more power than a smartphone. That means you're not likely to be able to charge an iPad from a USB hub or from your Mac's or PC's USB port.

The iPad won't charge from my MacBook Pro, from either of my powered USB 2.0 hubs, or from the little Apple USB power block I carry for business trips to keep my iPod Touch juiced up. So don't count on it charging from a USB socket an an airport lounge or on a plane or train. Fortunately, the 10W power supply is small, so you can carry it with you, but you'll need a regular power socket to plug it into.

iPod Touch, iPhone, and other smartphone users will have to change the behavior they've learned over the years: They won't be able to charge their iPad from any powered USB connection as they can with their handhelds. And they won't be charging their iPads when they're syncing to their desktops.

The iPad at Work: A Work in Progress
It's clear the iPad is not a perfect replacement for a laptop (or desktop PC). The connectivity issues create hassles that will slow workplace adoption, and the constrained data exchange and poor cloud-apps compatibility will restrict iPad business usage to basic office productivity work and, via thin clients or where specialty iOS apps exists, to niche field-force usage such as for hospital staff, construction foremen, and the like.

But a lot of people could say good-bye, or at least "see you later," to their laptop. And, remember, today's iPad is just the first version. Who knows? If we're lucky, iOS 4 for iPad, due in September or October, may move things along.

This article, "An iPad at the office: Can it work as a PC?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.

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