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Apple's iPad: can it rise to enterprise IT demands?

After 90 minutes of Apple iPad superlatives, demonstrations, and slick videos, which didn’t quite mask a distinct sense of disappointment among his listeners on the Web, Apple CEO Steve Jobs ended his unveiling with the billion-dollar question: “Do we have what it takes to establish a third category of products?” Enterprise IT departments are trying to figure out how to answer him.

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We polled a range of IT professionals, and a few analysts, to get their reactions to the announcement of the new Apple tablet, dubbed the iPad. Almost at once, it’s been labeled a big iPhone, though it doesn’t support cellular voice calls.

Enterprise assessments are all across the board, but in general most of those we talked with were intrigued enough to want to experiment with the iPad.

“We are already looking at what this may mean for our organization,” Jake Seitz, enterprise architect at The First American Corp. in Santa Ana, Calif. “What's interesting is the inclusion of the [Apple] office suite, iWorks, natively on the iPad. …This seems to scream, 'enterprise never mind the fact that it’s only 9 bucks!' This coupled with a dock that supports an external keyboard and you have a very capable enterprise-ish device.”

Apple made much of the fact that iPad is designed in part as an e-reader, and that caught the attention of Ross McKenzie, Director of Information Technology for Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland.

“I’m excited about the prospect that they will be e-readers, but I’m not holding my breath that text publishers will take advantage of the platform yet,” he says. (He may not have to hold his breath: Apple has created an online bookstore, the iBook Store, which stocks titles from such publishing heavyweights as Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Hachette Book Group. You can order, pay, and download the titles online. A separate question is whether the titles will expand from bestsellers to more specialized texts that would be of interest to doctors and nurses.)

McKenzie sees a ready fit in both niche areas and personal productivity by exploiting iPad’s Web browsing capabilities. “Since all of our custom programming is Web-based,” he says, “there’s a strong possibility the tablets could become nice survey tools for our researchers and personal productivity tools for everyone.”

That likelihood seems based on his own experience as an iPhone user. “Personally, I already do more with my iPhone than I ever thought to do with a desktop or laptop. The small, specific applications drive the use,” he says.

That change, which may be what Apple is banking on, seems to spreading in the enterprise. “We’ve already noticed that people want computers that are small and closer to netbook size these days, and the tablet will only drive ‘needs’ in its direction when it becomes more mainstream, whether it’s Apple’s design, or a close competitor knock-off,” says Craig Bush, network administrator at Exactech, a maker of orthopaedic implant devices and related surgical instrumentation, in Gainesville, Florida. “Our people already like the smaller form factor Dells, and I can see people wanting tablets during meetings or presentations, possibly using one for travel.”

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