Updated 1/18/2011: Added details about iPad to projector cabling and added link to opinion piece advocating against the use of the iPad in an enterprise setting to the related content section.
When Apple first brought the iPad to market, some critics lampooned it as a product without an audience, or an answer to a question nobody asked. Robust sales and a surprising level of penetration in the enterprise have laid most of these concerns to rest, and, if the most recent CES is any indication, Apple will soon face an army of tablet competitors from dozens of other vendors. Some -- like the Motorola Xoom and RIM PlayBook -- may finally give the iPad the competition it needs.
So why has the iPad succeeded where others have failed? And what do tablets offer that other computing devices don't? Here are a few reasons why I think the tablet form factor may finally have found its niche in corporate America.
Sometimes Enough...is Enough: I'll be the first to admit that my laptop preferences tend to drift towards the overpowered. I really don't need a laptop to have a monster processor, powerful graphics card, vast amounts of storage, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a video camera to write articles, but having that capability when I might need it is smart, right? People predisposed to having the most powerful laptops aside, the vast majority of office workers probably don't need (or care) if their laptop sports the latest bells and whistles, as long as it lets them get on the corporate network, browse the web, view documents and presentations, and check their Facebook pages now and then. The iPad excels at all of these things. It won't replace a desktop or laptop for content creation, but it excels as a device that displays and presents information. And sometimes that's all you need.
Collaboration is King: Have you ever tried to share information on a laptop with 4-5 people seated around a small table? There's lots of laptop turning involved, adjusting the screen for glare, standing up to get a better view of the screen, and peering around the plastic barrier of the laptop screen to make eye contact with the person behind it. The iPad excels as a tool for small, collaborative groups. The device can be easily passed around to participants, or everyone can peer down at the device as it rests in the center of the table. That ability for people to easily share and view the device also makes the iPad ideal for playing digital versions of such popular boardgames such as Risk, Scrabble, and Monopoly.
Instant Information: Like the iPhone, the iPad has a start-up time that is measured in seconds. We've all been in meetings where everyone patiently waits for someone to pull their laptop out of its case, turn it on, wait for it to boot, and then navigate to the information required for the meeting. Fast start-up time is a boon for sales people, who now have even more time to present information and pitch prospective clients. On the productivity front, how many hours -- or weeks, days, or months! -- have we all wasted waiting for someone's PC to boot? The main reasons people bring laptops to meetings is to provide information relevant to the topic at hand, present documents, share a slide deck, or search the web. Aside from taking notes and connecting to a projector, a good tablet can perform all these tasks. (Update: Apple does sell an iPad to VGA connector cable that does allow the iPad to output to a projector. )
Simplicity Trumps Complexity: I'll admit that I couldn't live without my work laptop. I'm a writer and editor by trade, so the thought of typing a 3000 word article on a touchscreen would be torture. But I also admit that laptops have their own share of drawbacks. They tend to be heavier and more cumbersome, and lugging them between conference room can be a chore. Start-up times can often be long, and how many of us have had problems with waking up a laptop from sleep or hibernate mode? And how many meetings have we all been in where we watch someone try in vain to get their $2000 laptop to work with a $4000 projector?
The iPad solves most of these problems: It's light, slips easily on top of notebooks and binders, and starts up instantly. The iPad's greatest strength is it's intuitive operation and simplicity, traits which are often more valuable than the faster processor speed and more voluminous storage capacity offered by an overly-complex (and expensive) laptop.
I'm sure there are other reasons why people are using the iPad, and I'm sure there's an equally long list of reasons why people aren't using it. If you fall into either camp, let us know what you think by commenting on this blog post or following the discussion on Twitter.