Technology

Apple's iPad: No Fun for Small Biz


I may sound like I live in the Dark Ages, but for business owners, there's no foreseeable ROI for the latest e-toy

I'm not a big fan of change. I've lived in the same city all my life. I go to the same supermarket every week. I read the newspaper every day. I drive non-hybrid American cars (thank God). I watch 60 Minutes every Sunday. And I think the Who looked just fine at the Super Bowl, O.K.? I don't like change in my personal life. And much of the time, I hate it when things change in my business—especially when that change lessens productivity and boosts my costs. Which is why I'm not especially happy about the imminent release of the Apple (AAPL) iPad. It seems like a really cool device. Apple does a great job innovating new products. I love my iPod. My first computer was a Macintosh. My kids love their Macbooks. I get it. Apple is a great company with a history of great products. The iPad may become another great product—for consumers. Not businesses. Apple admits this. It and AT&T (T), which will provide the wireless connectivity for the iPad in the U.S., are targeting the iPad to at-home users. Not Seeing the Limitations

Yet for me, as a small business owner who sells software and related consulting services, the iPad is destined to become a pain in the rear. Some of my clients are already talking about buying one. So are some of my employees. They'll start using it at home. Then they're going to want to bring their toys to work. Clients are going to ask me why I don't recommend it for their business. My employees are going to get frustrated when I tell them to leave their iPads at home. They're all going to call me names and accuse me of living in the Dark Ages. A few of them will probably make fun of my height, too, just like they did when I pooh-poohed netbooks. They'll see everyone else playing with those iPads, and they'll also want one. But they won't understand its limitations. Fun as it may be, the iPad will have its own unique support issues. And my 10-person company barely has the resources to support our existing devices—the PCs, Macs, Research In Motion (RIMM) BlackBerrys, the iPhones, the netbooks, etc. So when some employee of mine insists on using his new iPad and then runs into a printing issue or a connection problem, I'm going to have to step up and help him so he stays productive. Which means I'm going to have to incur yet more costs with my IT firm. The upshot: I'll be paying them to learn how to support the new iPad, because they'll be just as clueless. This won't be fun. Security Headaches

It won't be fun for my clients, either, when they find problems running the applications we sell on their iPad. And it's not like my company sells some type of unknown propriety software. We sell well-known products such as Intuit's (INTU) Quickbooks and Microsoft's customer relationship management product. My technicians struggle with these programs, as good as they are, to work on Windows PCs, let alone all the other technology that our clients want to use. Oh boy, and then there's security. Super—now we have yet another way for users to access data on their networks. As if we don't have enough portable devices to do this already. And because users will be so swept away with the awesomeness of watching an episode of Lost on their iPad, they'll be angry with me when they find out that someone got into one of the databases we support using an iPad and—gasp—lost their information. They'll say things like, "How could you let this happen?" Maybe I'm being a little extreme here. Business owners like me can put up with some degree of change. We're cool with Ellen Degeneres being on Idol. We're O.K. with ice hockey games played in Fenway Park. And we can deal with the iPad's device issues. The software compatibility problems. The security risks. This is the world we live in. But to a business owner, there is a line in the sand. And that's Return on Investment. Even if there were no other issue with it, the most important reason I can't justify the iPad for my employees, or my clients' employees, is that there's no ROI. Boring is Better

For the same price as an iPad, users can get a boring little laptop. I know, I know. It's not as good for streaming The Twilight Saga. And that chilling YouTube Worst Office Freak Out video doesn't seem as compelling. Boo hoo. Because with that boring laptop, you'll have compatibility with most business software. In fact, right now the iPad only lets you install software from the Apple Store (but I'm sure that'll change in the future). With a boring laptop running boring Windows, you'll have USB ports. And replaceable batteries. And a full-size keyboard. You'll have a broader network of support from boring business partners that have years of experience with similar devices (which is why they're so boring). And you'll have more options for securing data going back and forth between your employees and your database, which contains boring business things like orders, invoices, and payroll. O.K., so the iPad really won't reduce any costs in my business. Can we justify its business ROI through increased employee productivity? Ha! You try using one of those things for a few hours and then tell me how much actual work you accomplished. It's just too damn fun. So here comes the iPad. And another headache for small business owners. It's just more change. Boy, do I hate change.

Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsize businesses. Marks is the author of four best-selling small business books and writes the popular "Penny Pincher's Almanac" syndicated column. He frequently speaks to business groups on penny-pinching topics. More penny-pinching advice from Marks can be found at www.quickerbetterwiser.com.

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