What if every computer in your office were replaced by an iPad? For many of us, replacing all those clunky desktops sounds like a dream come true; to others, it’s a nightmare. But Apple has made inroads in the iPad as an enterprise tool—one not just used at meetings or on the go but as a primary work tool.
There have always been hurdles to this. Initially, the main one was the difficulty of typing. These days lightweight wireless keyboards are so ubiquitous, and of such high quality, that typing into an iPad isn’t the problem. The selection of business apps is.
Apple’s partnership with IBM has changed that, producing ten business apps with more on the way. Those ten include things almost any business can use, like Sales Assist (check inventory, locate items on shelves, and even pull up customer profiles on the floor) or Pick & Pack (manage inventory and order more). They also include more specialized apps for insurance, financial companies, and even law enforcement. What’s interesting about almost all of these apps is how they combine the iPad’s mobility with traditional business needs to create capabilities older tools can’t match. For instance, Sales Assist doesn’t just let you view a customer profile, it lets you do it while talking to the customer on the sales floor—which just so happens to be the perfect time to make product recommendations.
That doesn’t mean everyone’s excited about the new enterprise apps. Business Insider’s Sam Colt suggests that getting companies to buy into them is going to be a problem because of the challenge of switching over.
For Colt, business are already invested in current workflows; changing internal processes to match the new apps won’t be a popular choice. That concern is fueled in part because Apple’s business apps are not customizable. You use them out of the box.
We’re not sure that lack of customization is a bad thing in business software. A company can easily dump millions into developing complicated “custom” software for relatively simple business needs like customer databases, contact management or order fulfillment. These custom solutions usually require ongoing support and continued customization, both of which are costly. Going with a ready-use app may require a culture or workflow shift, but the savings in time, cost and headache may well be worth it.
Still, Colt is probably right at the level of large corporations. Big companies have generally invested heavily in custom software and are unlikely to ditch it for something with less functionality. In other words, they’re entrenched. But big companies are probably not Apple’s main market, at least with the non-retail apps.
Instead, they’re likely aiming most of these apps at small and medium size businesses. Using iPads sounds simple and low cost to smaller businesses, and not needing to customize the apps may actually be a plus. Small and medium businesses are unlikely to have expensive custom software solutions they don’t want to give up. On the other hand, they may not have formal work processes for some needs at all, so a simple app that does the job is the perfect fix.
Notably absent from the list of apps are direct responses to office mainstays: Microsoft Word and Excel. Of course, apps do exist that offer (limited) word processing and bookkeeping functionality, but we would have expected Apple and IBM to put flashy new competitors right on the front line. Instead they’re taking a more coy approach.
That approach makes sense, however. Apple is essentially respecting Microsoft’s turf as king of the desktops. Instead, Apple and IBM are nosing around business needs where there is no clear king, especially those that could benefit from portability and a simpler interface. That’s a market they can more easily break into, putting iPads in the hands of clerks, waiters, flight attendants and warehouse staff before making an assault on the cubicles.
Eventually Apple will make apps to directly oppose Microsoft Office—but only after the iPad has become ubiquitous everywhere else. And that’s when we might start to see offices without a desktop in sight.
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