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In early February, an Apple (AAPL) rep is scheduled to pay a visit to the Cincinnati offices of Western & Southern Financial Group. Employees have been clamoring for the company to provide support for Apple's iPhone and Mac computers, says Doug Ross, chief technology officer at the fund manager, with $43 billion in assets. So he's eager to hear Apple's pitch. Ross also looks forward to discussing a new type of device altogether: "I think he's going to show us a tablet," Ross says.
A flat, touchscreen computer like the one Apple is expected to introduce Jan. 27 could help wean Western & Southern workers off their reliance on three-ring binders filled with paper and noisy laptops that can be a distraction during meetings, Ross says. "I would love to have [documents] in an electronic form that people could interact with in a friendly way."
Before the Jan. 27 introduction, most speculation and reports on the tablet focused on ways it will be used to showcase books, newspapers, and entertainment. Yet, Apple's new creation may also have an impact in cubicles and boardrooms. "This is going to be huge for business," says Bruce Francis, vice-president for corporate strategy at Salesforce.com (CRM), which created an application that makes its software-based tools available on Apple's iPhone. "Apple has blown through the barriers with the iPhone, and the same thing is going to happen with the tablet."
Software programmers are all too happy to help. In a January survey of more than 500 software developers conducted by mobile app-making service Appcelerator, about 49% of respondents identified business as a category of application they would be interested in creating for the tablet. That was the most popular response, followed by productivity (47%), entertainment (44%), and social networking (42%). Apple is likely to offer a new version of its App Store and tools for creating apps sized to fit the tablet, says Appcelerator CEO Jeff Haynie.
IT experts say Apple hasn't traditionally gone to great lengths to cater to business users. "Apple has been widely criticized for not paying enough attention to core business foundation needs in the areas of security, management, and telephony," says Ken Dulaney, analyst at Gartner (IT). While Apple has made security improvements to the iPhone, and added support for Microsoft's (MSFT) e-mail service for businesses, Dulaney says IT managers often snub the iPhone because it lacks features standard on other mobile computers, such as the ability to run multiple applications at once. "Apple has been unwilling to go the extra step that Microsoft and [Research In Motion (RIMM), maker of the BlackBerry] have gone to support the enterprise," he says.
Still, third-party application developers have helped drive use of the iPhone in the workplace, and many plan to get behind the tablet. "The bigger the screen, the easier it will be to type and manipulate data," says Michael Simon, CEO of LogMeIn (LOGM), a company that lets customers access their PCs remotely, through mobile applications. LogMeIn, which counts professionals like doctors, lawyers, and small business owners among its users, held an initial share sale last year. It has generated more than $1 million in sales of its most popular iPhone application, which costs $29.99. Simon says he will watch the Jan. 27 Apple announcement closely.
Engineers at Evernote, an online service for storing photos and personal notes on many devices, are creating mockups of a 10-inch digital screen to test the possibilities of the tablet. "If you're holding something roughly the size of a magazine in your hand, how would you want to use it?" asks Phil Libin, Evernote's CEO. The team at Mobiata, maker of the popular iPhone travel app FlightTrack, is testing the idea of running multiple functions within the same screen. Present.ly, an enterprise take on microblogging services like Twitter, might be turned into a tablet application that displays photos and video alongside 140-character messages. The makers of ProOnGo, a mobile app that lets users take pictures of receipts and organize expenses, are holding out hope that the tablet comes with a camera.
A bigger Apple device could mean more powerful—and profitable—apps. "Price points can be higher in the tablet than they are in the iPhone," says Alan Masarek, chief executive of Quickoffice. For years, his company has sold mobile software compatible with Microsoft's Office for the PC. With the increased capabilities promised by the tablet, Quickoffice could charge more than the $7.99 it does for the iPhone version.
Tablet computing could eventually pose broader changes to the way people do business, says Raju Vegesna, an executive at Zoho. The Pleasanton (Calif.) maker of online productivity applications plans to release at least two apps for the iPhone in February, and may start planning versions for Apple's tablet as soon as this week. Businesses make up about 60% of Zoho's customers.
Vegesna says touchscreen technology could be used increasingly in business if devices like Apple's tablet catch on. "If the keyboard and the mouse are going away in computing, that's going to be a huge change," he says. "And that means there is a great opportunity for [software] vendors big and small."