Now that the dust has settled and we know what the Apple iPad is, many people have begun trying to answer the question, "How can I justify spending the money to get one of these things?" There is certainly no denying that the iPad is a very cool looking device, but as a small business owner, do you really need one? And what about netbooks? Apple CEO Steve Jobs claims that the new iPad fills a niche for which netbooks were failing to deliver, but is that really true for business users?
Here, then, are reasons why you should go out and buy an iPad as soon as they're available, and reasons why you shouldn't.
Why You Need One
There are many reasons why small business owners could justify purchasing an Apple iPad. Though clearly aimed at casual users and touted primarily for couch web surfing and multimedia consumption, the iPad also has plenty of potential business uses. By creating a special iPad optimized edition of iWork, Apple's productivity suite, Apple also clearly sees the iPad's business potential. Their ultra-competitive announced price of just $9.99 for the app indicates that Apple plans to aggressively court business users, even if that is not necessarily their core customer.
Essentially, the iPad is a big iPod touch that in theory provides a better typing experience (by virtue of its larger onscreen keyboard). Because the iPad will run any of the 140,000 iPhone/iPod apps right out of the box, any business use you already have for your iPod touch or iPhone (except making phone calls) will be available to you on the iPad -- but bigger. With that in mind, the iPad could certainly become an asset to sales people who make presentations on the road (what's more impressive -- clicking through PowerPoint slides or manipulating product demos and data visualizations with your fingers?) or anyone who needs to easily monitor core business functions (server health, web site traffic stats, sales indicators, financial numbers, etc.) from the road using a relatively cheap and compact device.
Why You Don't
What the iPad isn't, however, is a replacement for your desktop or laptop computer. There are many features missing from the iPad, but two in particular could be deal breakers for serious small business users.
First, the iPad lacks a standard USB port. There will almost certainly be aftermarket accessories available to add USB support to the tablet, but the bottom line is that using the USB devices you already own, such as memory sticks and external hard drives, will not be easy or even possible with the iPad out of the box.
Second, and more egregious, the iPad, like the iPhone and iPod touch, currently lacks the ability to multitask. For Apple's apparent target consumer -- users who will use the iPad for casual web surfing, to watch movies, and to play games -- not being able to run more than one program at the same time isn't likely a big deal. But for business users, that's a major setback. If you're putting together a presentation or writing up a sales report, you need the ability to be able to refer to a web page or data locked in some other application while you work. For that reason alone, the iPad in its current form is not an ideal business machine.
What About Netbooks?
For about half the price of an iPad you could buy a very capable netbook (some come even cheaper when subsidized by a 3G data plan subscription). According to Apple CEO Steve Jobs, "netbooks aren’t better at anything." But in many ways, a $299 netbook outshines the $499 iPad, especially for business users. If what you're after is a machine that offers extreme portability and business critical features for a low price, a netbook might be a better option.
Netbooks have a number of advantages over the iPad. They multitask, they often have cameras (for video conferencing), they can generally run Windows (meaning they run Microsoft Office and Outlook), they support an open software ecosystem (meaning more choice and the ability to easily custom develop and deploy software for your organization), and they have standard ports and inputs. While they can't match the iPad for cool factor, as far as business functionality, netbooks pack a lot of bang for the buck.
So which should you buy? That will come down to what type of device you need and its intended use. The iPad, however, is not a must-have purchase for all small business owners -- at least, not in its first generation.