iPad and tablets make push into corporate world

SAN FRANCISCO – The billboards promoting the iPad have a simple message: The tablet is a device for leisure, to be held on one’s lap while lounging on a couch in casual clothes, to watch a film or read a magazine.

But plenty of businesses have something stodgier in mind. Companies as diverse as General Electric, Wells Fargo, Mercedes-Benz and Medtronic are putting Apple’s iPad to work in their offices. And as a string of devices tailored for the office enters the market – from the likes of Motorola, Research In Motion, Samsung and Hewlett-Packard – tablets are all but certain to flood America’s workplaces.

Ted Schadler, a vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research, said he expected that tens of millions of tablets would be in use in America’s workplaces by 2015.

The tablet’s road to the workplace has been conventional at times, with technology departments buying them for employees. For example, Life Technologies, a California company that makes products for the biotech industry, has handed out iPads to some 600 executives and salespeople. But the tablets are also walking in through the back door, as employees bring their favourite new tech toy to work and demand access to their corporate e-mail, calendars and other applications.

The trend, which the industry calls “consumerization,” represents a significant shift from the last few decades, when the most advanced technologies were first available in the workplace and eventually migrated into consumer products.

For all its inroads in the workplace, neither the iPad nor any other tablet has displaced the PC, the workhorse of information workers for three decades – at least not yet. But that hasn’t stopped Apple’s perennial rival, Microsoft, from fretting over the tablet’s intrusion into the world of business computing, which it has dominated.

In a series of PowerPoint slides for its marketing partners, Microsoft recently raised questions about the viability of the iPad as a business tool.

“How do you secure your corporate I.P.?,” referring to intellectual property, read the slides, which appeared on ZDNet, a technology news site. “How do you demonstrate compliance to auditors?”

A large extent the iPad’s entry into the business world was paved by the iPhone. When Apple first released the iPhone, it lacked capabilities to link up securely with corporate e-mail systems. But as executives tried the device, they often preferred it to their BlackBerrys and other smart phones, and soon began demanding support for them.

Apple gradually added capabilities, and the iPhone became standard issue in scores of large businesses.

Companies that waited two or three years to support the iPhone began adopting the iPad just weeks after its release.

“It was a very natural extension to provide support for iPad because it runs on the same operating system,” said John Prusnick, director of information technology innovation and strategy at Hyatt Hotel & Resorts, which is based in Chicago. Prusnick said that at first Hyatt executives asked to use iPads at work. Then the company began giving them to its salespeople, so they could have easy access to interactive presentations about all the company’s properties when making pitches to business customers.

Now, in some of its hotels, Hyatt is giving iPads to “lobby ambassadors,” who use it to expedite guest checkouts when there are long lines, and who can offer concierge services on the fly.

Marc Benioff, the chief executive of Salesforce called 2011 “the year of the tablet” and added: “If you call me next year, I will say it is also the year of the tablet. And if you call me in 2013, I’ll tell you it’s going to be the year of the tablet.”

Forecasters expect that over time, the popularity of tablets will eat into PC sales. In November, the research company Gartner lowered its growth predictions for the PC market this year to 15.9 per cent, from an earlier estimate of 18.1 per cent.