Apple's iPad has a niche in a lot of professions

For students, lawyers, real estate agents and others, the iPad fits a niche

Most iPad owners will most likely use their shiny new tablet to read books and magazines, watch movies, TV shows and YouTube videos, and do typical Internet tasks like check e-mail and surf the Web. But what about putting it to use in different business situations? Does it fit in at work?

In a recent survey, more than half of mobile phone users reported that they would use a tablet device like the iPad for business. There are, of course, many reasons a business or education user might want one -- for online research, reading downloaded texts and other content, working with Office-type apps such as Apple's iWork, and collaborating with others via e-mail and Web-based portals. But professionals in specific industries or particular jobs will likely find numerous ways to integrate the device into their workdays.

Over the past several weeks, I've talked to a diverse range of professionals about the new iPad, including doctors, lawyers, educators, IT staffers and others. And while many said they'll know more about exactly how it will fit into their businesses days after they've had a chance to try it out, I did get a broad consensus about how it will be used. Mobility, connectivity and ease of use came up often as the main attributes it offers, regardless of profession. But exactly which of those attributes is most important depends on who you ask -- and the task at hand.

What seems clear is that, more than anything else, the iPad offers versatility.

Students

Students and iPads go together like backpacks and textbooks. Assuming textbook publishers embrace the idea of digital texts, the iPad should be an ideal device for students. The lower costs of digital textbooks, the inclusion of multimedia features and the ease of carrying a single lightweight device instead of several bulky and heavy books are all clear advantages for students.

But digital textbooks are just one use for the iPad. Being able to access the Internet anywhere, anytime (as long as you have the 3G iPad) offers its own advantages. From middle school through graduate programs, students will have ready access to resources like Wikipedia, Google and other general or academic search engines, specific education and scholarly sites, and collaborative technologies like class wikis and blogs.

Apple's tablet, the iPad
Apple's tablet, the iPad, could wind up in use in a lot of places.

Self-directed learning services like Apple's iTunes U, online schools and courses, and an array of other online learning and discussion resources add even more value to the iPad as a learning tool.

Educators and trainers

The iPad also offers a lot of advantages to forward-thinking educators, who can integrate it into the classroom in a variety of ways. The $499 entry-level price (for the 16GB, Wi-Fi-only model) makes it a credible alternative to computers, and it's less disruptive to the learning process; students and teachers can switch between digital content and more traditional lecture-style teaching as easily as if they were using a traditional textbook.

The iPad also offers new ways to engage students. Rather than simply reading and memorizing static content, students can use the iPad to access information in a range of dynamic ways. Educational games, videos and interactive quizzes offer different ways of learning, while the ability to instruct students on how to research information online -- while at the same time teaching them how to judge the quality of the information they find -- is a huge plus.

Teachers can even use the iPad as a collaborative tool, in and out of the classroom, by creating class mailing lists, wikis and shared online projects. In short, the iPad offers educators a range of ways to engage students, using many different learning models -- an important point, considering that different people absorb and process information in different ways.

The iPad even has uses outside of traditional schools and universities. Trainers can use it as a low-cost way of presenting information. One trainer I know pointed out that with one- or two-dozen iPads, she'd be able to engage a large class in Internet-related technologies without the expense of using individual computers. The result is a much more portable training environment -- just iPads and a wireless router required -- that could be used in just about any conference room, obviating the need for a dedicated lab or a range of laptops, which could be less portable, more costly and more complex to set up.

Sales and marketing presenters

The iPad offers a lot of possibilities for sales and marketing professionals. It's easier to carry and offers longer battery life than most notebooks. With the appropriate accessories, it can be attached to a larger display -- and even for small meetings, its 9.7-in. screen may suffice for a presentation. In fact, the sheer ease of use in displaying information and options to a client, coupled with the general "cool factor," may be an asset in itself.

Since the iPad can offer a ubiquitous Internet and network connection, it allows for easy access to public information such as survey results or comparisons with competitors. It also allows access to corporate data and tools.

Like the iPad in a classroom, it offers a frictionless transition between a presentation or sales pitch and related tasks like recording client information, preparing quotes, researching additional information or scheduling follow-ups. It seems only natural that existing CRM tools for the iPhone will be upgraded and enhanced for the iPad, making them more feature-complete and enabling easier and more effective customer interactions.

Real estate agents

One profession that seems ripe for iPad use is real estate. Small, lightweight notebooks and netbooks are common in this industry, both as a research tool for available properties and as a way to connect with or show information to clients. The iPhone and other smartphones have already found a home in real estate because they provide those capabilities in a smaller package.

The iPad offers real estate agents the ability to research and connect with customers more easily than a smartphone, and it's more portable and easy to carry than a notebook. It has the ability to provide access to services like mortgage calculators, information on property values, tools for both taking measurements and sketching out potential renovations, and the ability to display other properties to clients quickly and easily. While a notebook or smartphone can be used to do these things, the iPad combines the best of both -- a ubiquitous connection and a larger screen than smartphones have.

Health care workers

Probably one of the biggest fields in which the iPad will prove popular is health care. With electronic medical records becoming a priority in hospitals and practices across the U.S., the iPad is a very portable means for physicians to access patient records and medical history and view medical imaging data or test results. It can also be used for recording health information and immediately adding that data to a patient's record. And an iPad could be used to do billings associated with a visit.

The challenge will be to ensure data security -- making sure that all data on the device is encrypted or stored on a server to which the iPad securely connects. However, it can be addressed with the appropriate software packages, such as MacPractice, which has already announced an iPad version of its software; virtual desktop technologies like Citrix; or by relying entirely on Web-based tools.

Beyond patient records, the iPad can be useful as a reference tool, providing access to drug guides, diagnostic references, medical journals and other online health care resources. An interesting advantage to the iPad in this regard is the ability to illustrate medical conditions or procedures when discussing them with a patient. This can give a patient a more detailed understanding of his or her condition and its causes and treatment options.

Lawyers and other legal professionals

Surprisingly, legal practices were among the biggest early adopters of the iPhone in a business setting. The iPhone tends to appeal to lawyers because of its small and unobtrusive form factor and its ability to enable instant access to a range of tools and resources, whether in the office, in a meeting with a client or opponent, or in court. One comment I heard from lawyers was that the iPhone provided much of the capabilities of a computer in a handheld package.

It seems logical that the iPad will appeal to legal professionals for many of the same reasons. It is highly portable and can provide instant access to everything from law books to appointment schedules and court dates. The iPad's larger screen and faster processor expand on these capabilities by allowing legal professionals to write more extensive notes, perform research faster, and even to view and write briefs and other documents -- no matter where they are.

Midlevel managers

The responsibilities of managers vary widely between organizations and even across departments at the same organization. For those dealing with finance and human resources, the iPad may not offer a direct benefit, other than allowing access to files and databases on the go (as well as e-mail, Internet and intranet resources). For others, business intelligence, CRM and ERP tools could prove to be quite helpful for department heads as well as project managers assigned to specific projects.

For general management staff, the big advantages will be the mobility the iPad offers, both within a corporate network and, provided that the appropriate security measures are in place, at home or on external networks. The ease of integrating common business functions -- document review/editing, e-mail and access to internal resources -- into a lightweight framework is likely to be appealing to those who work from home or who travel regularly.

For project managers, there are an array of personal and collaborative project management tools available for the iPhone and iPod Touch, and many will likely be expanded as iPad offerings. Currently, several iPhone OS applications exist to plug into common Web/wiki-based collaborative tools, including the popular and cross-platform Basecamp. For small to midsize businesses that are largely Mac-based, Marketcircle's Daylite Touch is also a powerful app.

Freelancers

The term "freelancers" covers a lot of ground and can encompass jobs as varied as graphic artists, writers and consultants in any number of business, sales, promotional and marketing or technology fields. In general, the iPad can be used to communicate proposals to clients, and to record notes and research client needs. The interactive and visual nature of the iPad's interface will help freelancers to work on various projects, especially where visuals are important; interpret and integrate feedback; perform basic research; and collaborate with clients on the fly.

Mind-mapping applications are also great for sketching out needs and brainstorming possible solutions in real time. Along these lines, The Omni Group, which produces a range of solid and well-received applications for Mac OS X in this area, has already committed to porting its desktop suite to the iPad. (An iPhone version of the group's Omni Focus tool already exists.) Also coming in handy for freelancers are time/project tracking and invoice management tools. Marketcircle's Billings Touch for the iPhone is an excellent choice and will remain so once ported to the iPad.

Finally, freelancers will no doubt find a range of additional iPad uses and applications that relate to their specific fields. A graphic designer, for example, might use iWork's Pages for iPad to quickly sketch out potential layouts for projects during a meeting (though final layout would likely be done using much more robust tools on a workstation). Similar photo-editing tools and the iPad's built-in Photos application can be used to illustrate existing portfolios.

Travel and tourism

The iPad offers a lot of potential for the travel industry. For tour guides, its ability to call up maps, points of interest and additional historical information could yield more informative and interactive tours and would help with answering questions on the fly. (The iPad WiFi+3G models would particularly excel in this area.) Similarly, the iPad could serve a useful purpose in helping to keep tour groups together, verifying accommodations and even directing individuals to appropriate flights, trains or other modes of transportation. For those planning tours and vacations or working at specific hotels, resorts or cruise ships, the iPad could also allow guests to serve as their own tour guides.

IT pros

IT professionals might seem to be an unlikely group of workers to consider the iPad. After all, most IT staffers, from help desk and desktop support through systems and network administrators, typically need more from a computer than other users, both in terms of power and specialized tools. But as was illustrated by the number of iPhone tools aimed at various IT professionals, there are situations where a portable device can help with monitoring an environment and responding to problems quickly.

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