Can the Apple iPad get any workplace respect?

Apple's iPad tablet computer is attracting some interested glances from government

After watching Apple rack up its 3 millionth iPad sale in June, only 80 days after the tablet computer’s U.S. debut, it’s hard not to wonder if we’re witnessing the final nail in the coffin for the desktop PC’s 30-year run as our main man for Digital Age participation.

No one is suggesting that people will put their old desktop PCs in permanent storage and replace them with shiny new iPads anytime soon. It’s hard to imagine any new device, no matter how slick and compelling, triggering that kind of a zero-sum swap-out, especially given the ubiquity and workhorse utility of desktop computers.

The real issue comes down to gaining share in that market otherwise known as personal preference and habit. Could the tablet computer become the platform of choice for more everyday tasks, such as checking e-mail, sharing documents and accessing the Web, thereby further cutting into the time we used to spend slavishly glued to our desktop computers?

On this score, the iPad and its copycats look like they could do some damage. Reuters reported Aug. 1 that Apple "could sell 25 million of the electronic tablets next year, based on the trajectory of past consumer hits." One research outfit thinks tablets will account for one of every four PCs sold by 2015.

And here's the acid test: Government technology officials are preparing for that day. A couple of agencies already list the iPad as an option on purchasing contracts, while some are testing the devices in anticipation of their greater use.

“It’s a new enough technology that we are just getting into how they can best be supported and secured,” said Rob Glenn, chief of information technology security at the Networking Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technologies. The NIST office has a handful of iPads used mostly for evaluation and some early research purposes. Glenn said he sees the iPad as a supplement to a desktop PC or possibly as a handy platform for use in a lab environment.

NASA, already a big user of Apple Mac desktop PCs and iPhones, also just started testing the iPad. John Sprague, user services project executive at the agency’s Outsourcing Desktop Initiative (ODIN), said he sees its potential value as an on-the-go platform.

“The iPad would be a mobile computing seat and not a desktop seat; [that] is how we would look at it,” Sprague said. Apple iPads are now available as an ODIN catalog purchase.

Given its consumer pedigree, it’s no surprise that the iPad is showing up at many agencies unannounced to the IT department. Cabinet department executives and Capitol Hill types are among those buying their own iPads and then bringing them in to work, said Venkatapathi “PV” Puvvada, vice president and managing partner of horizontal services at Unisys Federal Systems.

Puvvada said iPad supports the decision-making role of executives, providing ample screen real estate for viewing e-mail, attachments and Web sites. And tablet use won’t stop there.

Puvvada said he could see the iPad becoming a clipboard replacement for mobile workers, such as field inspectors. In addition, the iPad’s geotagging capabilities make it a platform for applications designed to boost situational awareness. He said Unisys is developing command and control and logistics-tracking applications for the iPad.

Why iPad Is Different

Despite the great interest in the iPad, it’s still too early to tell whether it will occupy a niche market or earn broader acceptance, said Doug Chabot, solutions architect at QinetiQ North America.

Indeed, previous tablet products from other vendors have remained on the fringe of computing or completely failed to catch on. Apple’s sales success with the iPad is unprecedented.

Darren Petrie, chief technologist at General Dynamics IT, said the iPad's simplicity and a wealth of applications available through Apple’s online App Store have combined to give the company’s tablet an edge. “I’ve personally found that…it’s very easy to use, which may not be the case with all tablets,” Petrie said.

Puvvada said he agreed that abundant applications have helped drive iPad sales. But he also pointed to the device’s user interface as a success factor: The interface isn’t cluttered with too many features, which would otherwise waylay users.

However, tablet computers and the iPad in particular face obstacles to widespread use. For one, as good as touch-screen technology, such as the iPad's, has become, it still can’t match the efficiency of a keyboard for inputting text.

And for now, the iPad has some sharp elbows when it comes to fitting into the workplace ecosystem.

“The normal office products that are the core of normal computer use — i.e. Microsoft Office — are not available [for the iPad], and [its] OS is not one of the normally supported platforms,” said Joe Moye, chief executive officer of Capgemini Government Solutions.

Meanwhile, the recent App Store hack will probably raise security concerns, he added.

Puvvada said he predicts government iPad purchasing will accelerate toward the end-of-the-fiscal-year buying season, noting that some vendors offer iPads on vehicles such as NASA’s Solutions for Enterprisewide Procurement governmentwide acquisition contract.

If sales do surge, it will be the best indicator yet that iPad’s successful formula of simplicity and convenience in the consumer market is likely to make a similar splash in the workplace.