Some big-name companies, like MicroStrategy and SAP, are betting that the answer is 'yes.'
Tablets have been hyped for a decade without much buy in from the user community — until the iPad came along. Recent IT conferences have featured a growing number of techies tricked out with Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) new toy, most of them extolling its virtues.
And now we are beginning to see companies such as MicroStrategy, SAP, QlikTech and Actuate add this device as a sales tool or bring to market iPad functionality to their customer relationship management (CRM), business intelligence and other enterprise software offerings.
Tim Hickernell, lead analyst for Info-Tech Research Group, sees businesses beginning to use the iPad in sales, CRM, business intelligence (BI) and marketing. In the retail segment, for instance, it allows the sales representative to accomplish order taking and inventory checks, and also gives them access to the product catalog in a rich media format. In field sales, iPads add sizzle to product demonstrations.
"Product demos incorporating 3D benefit the most from the iPad, such as medical and pharmaceutical demos in the field by sales reps," said Hickernell. "On the CRM side, field service can log service calls, or iPads can be deployed as self-service kiosks for a variety of CRM needs."
iPads seem to be gaining ground in high-value customer segments too. High wealth accounts such as major investors or buyers of expensive real estate can be given an iPad as a sales promotion, preloaded with an appropriate portfolio of investment opportunities and historical performance or even pre-load a high value real estate portfolio for prospective buyers, along with information about the destination city the prospect is moving to, said Hickernell.
However, he considers business intelligence to be less of a forum for the Apple tablet.
"BI is probably less of an iPad home run than other CRM or commerce usage scenarios," said Hickernell. "But as older BI interaction models, like simple click, evolve into gesture-based interaction models, then touch tablets like iPad will become useful data visualization presentation platforms."
The latest Gartner forecast predicts worldwide tablet sales of 19.5 million this year, almost all of them iPads. That will surge to 54.8 million in 2011 and 208 million units in 2014 — that's 10-fold growth in five years.
"Individuals are willing to buy these devices themselves, so enterprises must be ready to support them," said Gartner analyst Stephen Prentice. "The iPad has the potential to be hugely disruptive to the business models and markets of many enterprises."
Betting on iPad Disruption
One company betting on the iPad's disruptive potential is MicroStrategy (NASDAQ: MSTR). It has 1,200 iPads deployed across many areas of the company — more than half of the total workforce. Salespeople use them to demonstrate MicroStrategy Mobile, for example, which enables companies to create mobile BI apps, as well as to access BI reports via iPhone and iPad.
"The iPad is especially useful for BI because of its portability, its large screen size and the ability to leverage Apple's multi-touch gestures, such as swipe, tap, flick and rotate, to augment data navigation for users," said Mark LaRow, senior vice president of MicroStrategy Products.
Internally, MicroStrategy has also developed numerous apps for sales team and executives. The 'Sales Kit' app, for instance, includes a library of presentations, podcasts, webinars, brochures, white papers and other documents that they can use during meetings to address questions and provide background on areas of interest. And of course, they use them for email, document creation and Web browsing.
Moving up the ladder, executives harness the iPad at MicroStrategy to view reports of performance and operations data during conferences. An app called the Corporate Request Center enables executives to approve travel expenses, new hires, purchase requests, raises and other administrative functions from an iPad or iPhone.
"Businesses are recognizing the value of empowering their executives, workforce, suppliers and business partners with actionable information at all times, not just while they are at their desks," said LaRow. "Mobile business intelligence, especially using tablet devices, will expand the business intelligence market significantly, with more people accessing more data more often."
He cautions, though, that the iPad is not for everyone.
"If your work requires heavy content creation, a laptop or desktop makes more sense than an iPad," said LaRow. "But if you're primarily a content consumer, it's a great device."
Actuate (NASDAQ: ACTU) takes a similarly optimistic stance on the iPad. Its ActuateOne BI platform already includes native mobile applications for iPhone, iPad, Blackberry and Android. BIRT Mobile HD, which is exclusive to iPad, includes printing and email support, said Jeff Morris, vice president of product marketing at Actuate.
"BI brings business purpose to iPad, which currently carries strong executive cache as the 'in' gadget," said Morris. "iPad adoption of Actuate applications is 50 percent higher than with our iPhone apps, and in less than half the time."
He tells users to watch out for non-native applications that do not support the breadth of functionality found in the device.
Needed: Windows Support
Barry Cousins, an analyst with Info-Tech, advises users to not get carried away with the hype. The interface makes it appear to be a compelling device for BI, but he said, that's not the entire picture.
"Minute to minute, BI occurs when the technology gives suggestions for next product sold, sets tolerance for discretionary pricing, and alerts agents about possible customer dissatisfaction," said Cousins. "The context for those minute-to-minute issues is your CRM, Help Desk, ERP, etc., rather than a particular device."
What he's saying is that day to day, BI occurs as a checkpoint through performance dashboards and scorecards. The context for those every day issues is often email or an intranet portal, rather than a particular device.
"The iPad hasn't materially changed BI yet, but it has massively raised awareness of the tablet form factor as a business tool," said Cousins. "The iPad's most glaring weakness is the lack of interoperability with Windows. If a Windows-based tablet gains traction, many business users will find value in a seamless transition of Office documents and Windows apps between their various devices."
His view is that the iPad itself hasn't proven that it will have any more of a role in business than that of Apple in general. By their very nature, he said, the early adopters that gave iPad its initial profile are the low-loyalty market that will rush to adopt another tablet that offers a better fit in their business lives. It will take time to see how much real value it can harvest in the real world.