by Reed Richardson
Small businesses are, by their nature, more nimble and quick to react than their large, corporate counterparts. Often, entrepreneurs exploit this inherent advantage by adapting new technology to level the playing field and remain competitive. But for every advantage that comes with early adoption, there is also a cost. And right now, many small business owners are engaging in just such an internal debate about whether or not they can justify buying an iPad for their small businesses.
“Everywhere I go, lots of small business folks want to know more about that,” explains Susan Maus, owner of an online marketing business from Minneapolis. Maus, who bought her iPad last fall as a replacement for a recently departed MacBook, says she uses her iPad for everything from taking notes during a meeting to complex sales presentations. So far, she has no regrets about the move. “But just because it’s been a good fit for me, doesn’t mean it will work for every kind of small business,” says Maus. “It really depends on the individual.”
So, to help gauge how well your small business situation might match up with the iPad’s capabilities, we’ve put together three broad small business profiles below.
Scenario One – Mobile, customer-facing, sales-oriented entrepreneur
For entrepreneurs who spend all day hopping in and out of sales calls or conducting off-site meetings with existing clients, their small business profile would best align with what the iPad does well. Its light, portable nature, WiFi or 3G connectivity options, 10-hour battery life, and arresting visual appeal can all be big advantages for entrepreneurs who rarely, if ever, sit down behind a desk.
“If you’re mainly a Web surfer, note-taker, social-networker and emailer, and a consumer of photos, videos, books, periodicals and music—this could be for you,” noted Wall Street Journal tech editor Walt Mossberg in his original online iPad review from 2010. “If you need to create or edit giant spreadsheets or long documents, or you have elaborate systems for organizing email, or need to perform video chats, the iPad isn’t going to cut it as your go-to device.”
The recently released iPad 2 offers a number of upgrades from the original version—it weighs less, has a faster processor, and now includes front and rear-facing cameras for video chatting—but it still carries a base price of only $499. However, these new features haven’t fundamentally changed the first iPad’s business functionality equation. In other words, if much of your business day involves on-the-go networking or the consumption of content by yourself or with customers, it’s worth taking a hard look at purchasing an iPad.
“The iPad really shines as a presentation tool,” Maus says, but she then adds a caveat. “But I don’t do a lot of ‘work’ on it.” When it comes to writing text and manipulating pictures to create a Powerpoint slideshow, Maus acknowledges that she prefers to use the old fashioned keyboard interface on her trusty desktop computer. Then, once it’s complete, she transfers it onto her iPad and hits the road.
So, even if you can’t wait to stop lugging around a bulky, shoulder-straining notebook computer or are ready to junk that desktop tower, you’d be wise to wait before ditching them altogether. That’s because Maus’ experience is pretty typical for iPad users, who find that doing anything more than 30 minutes of light content creation on the iPad often becomes tedious or difficult because of its lack of a dedicated keyboard and USB port as well as its inability to run multiple programs simultaneously. (Apple does offer iPad-specific apps of all three of its iWork office software tools—Pages, Numbers, and Keynote—at $9.99 each.)
Scenario Two – Home office-based, online retail business owner
While there are a number of true entrepreneurial nomads, many small business owners are something of a hybrid, spending significant amounts of time both sitting at a desk (either at home or in an off-site office) and out and about interacting with customers and vendors. Often, the duality of this daily ritual comes from the wearing of two executive hats—business manager and head salesperson—and it can create two distinctly different sets of expectations for business computing. As such, finding a device that can satisfy both can be difficult.
The iPad does have some clear advantages for this business owner profile. Its sleek design, light weight, easy interface, and Web focus can give it the versatility of a smartphone on steroids (albeit one that doesn’t allow you to make standard phone calls). All this makes it easier to dash out the door for that quick business lunch or unexpected client meeting. And if you want to close a sale while you’re out, just outfit the iPad with an app like Square or Intuit’s GoPayment, which lets you accept credit card payments. (Both apps charge a per-swipe fee equal to roughly 2.7% of the transaction; GoPayment also adds a flat 15-cent surcharge for each swipe.)
Plus, because of the iPad’s cloud computing-based architecture, which doesn’t require you to store as much data on the actual device, when you do leave the office you can feel more secure that the entirety of your business’s data isn’t leaving with you. For any small business owner who’s ever left their laptop in a cab or spilled coffee all over a keyboard, this is welcome news. However, to ensure constant access to all of your business’s data through the Internet you might want to pay the extra $130 for a 3G version of the iPad, lest you be at the mercy of finding the nearest WiFi location.
Still, many of the iPad’s advantages begin to lose their luster in a more traditional office setting, where multitasking capability and multipurpose versatility are paramount. For Leanne Havelock, a self-described Mac person who runs her own copywriting agency, Four Letter Word Media, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the iPad’s office limitations caused her to rethink its purchase. “As a small business person, I’m just not convinced,” she explained last fall on the My Own Boss blog.
When the iPad 2 came out this past spring, she was again tempted to buy one. “But to really use an iPad in my office, I still would have had to get a iPad dock and keyboard,” she says. Adding those items to the setup cost, Havelock notes, would have pushed the price past that of many netbooks and come within a few hundred dollars of a true laptop like the smaller version of the MacBook Air, which features far more robust computing power, a larger, 11.6-inch screen, two built-in USB ports, and a dedicated keyboard, despite being only one-third of an inch thicker and one pound heavier than the iPad. In the end, Havelock decided to continue with her current laptop and iPhone combination. “I like the iPad a lot, but I’d much rather reinvest those dollars into my business right now. That will give me a better return for my money.”
Scenario Three – Office-based professional or factory-based production supervisor
Small business owners who remain tethered to their place of business all day may not think an iPad could bring much of value to their company. After all, power is readily available, connectivity isn’t a concern, and a desktop or laptop computer is always a short walk away if it isn’t already within arm’s reach. However, there are various ways to make use of the iPad’s capabilities to enhance your company’s productivity and reputation.
For example, online marketing expert Maus points out that if customers come to your place of business often, there still might be an opportunity to use an iPad as a presentation tool. “My brother-in-law, who is an eye surgeon, uses his iPad to review retinal photos with his patients,” she explains. Thanks to its portability and easy to manipulate, high-definition touchscreen, he can carry his iPad right into an exam room and then easily zoom in on specific areas of the photos while discussing medical procedures, improving communication between him and his patients while saving him time.
Other similar uses for the iPad run the gamut from using it as a convenient production line portal for accessing technical and repair manuals to making it a point-of-sale device (again, as a credit-card swipe station) on a retail shop floor. Not coincidentally, Apple has subtly increased its marketing push for iPad’s business use, launching its Joint Venture program this past March. Starting at $499 annually, the package promises Apple support technicians will setup and sync up to five Apple systems (one each of Macs, iPhones, and iPads) and train you and your employees to use them more efficiently to help your business. Given Apple’s slow but steady market penetration into big business, MacWorld’s David Chartier notes in this article on Joint Venture’s details that “It’s only logical that the company is making a serious effort to help small-to-medium sized businesses integrate its core products into their everyday operations.”
To be sure, the iPad isn’t right for every business. On the one hand, it can be a wise investment toward boosting your business’s impact and improving its productivity if its capabilities match your company’s needs. Then again, you might want to consider a final argument against purchasing one for you business—it simply makes it far too easy to fritter the hours away checking social media sites, watching videos, and playing games. For entrepreneurs who are already pressed for time and money, that could be a deal-breaker. Of course, that is also a good argument in favor of buying one for personal use…
- Apple’s iPad page
- Office accessories for the iPad (wireless keyboard, docking station)
- Convenient list of 50 essential small business apps for the iPad
iPad 2 Image Courtesy of Apple
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