An iPad at the office: Can it work as a PC?

In some cases, you can get rid of your laptop -- but only after figuring out app, data-access, keyboard, display, and power issues

Sure, the iPad is a great device for Web surfing, book reading, and movie watching. But it's also getting a lot of interest in corporations as a possible business device for field forces, nurses and doctors in hospitals, and knowledge workers in the office and on the go.

That interest is obvious from the top iPad downloads from the Apple App Store, where Citrix Receiver, an app that makes the iPad a portal to server-based apps such as Microsoft Office and SharePoint, has stayed in the top five almost every day. Also in that top-downloads list are Apple's iWork productivity trio (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) and two Microsoft Office-compatible productivity apps (Quickoffice Mobile Connect Suite and DataViz Documents to Go Premium).

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I decided to see how well the iPad could fit into a business environment. The short answer: awkwardly, but with lots of promise. (Note that all the apps mentioned here are available through InfoWorld's "no-junk business iPhone and iPad app finder" Web page.)

The iPad is very portable and has long battery life (six to eight hours in my experience, although the more networking you do via Wi-Fi, 3G, or Bluetooth, the less time you get). So it is very appealing as a laptop replacement, at least for short trips. For many users, it can indeed replace a laptop. Which users? Certainly those whose lives revolve around email, Web access, and basic office productivity work. For other users, it depends greatly on the software availability for your work tasks.

Here's what you can do, and what could get in your way.

The iPad software issue
If you're editing or commenting on documents, reviewing and adjusting spreadsheets, and reviewing and updating presentations, you'll find that either the $15 Quickoffice or the $15 Documents to Go will do the trick. But outside of dire needs, I wouldn't suggest you try to create complex documents, spreadsheets, or presentations with either; the tools aren't there and the lack of mouse support makes fine control difficult. Apple's $30 iWork suite is harder to use due to a too-spare interface, plus only its Pages app can export to an Office-compatible format for your colleagues' use.

If you do need to run the real Microsoft Office suite or other corporate apps for which there is no iPad version (IT management tools, route-delivery planning apps, electronic medical records access software, credit-scoring apps, and all those kinds of vertical programs), that's where the free Citrix Receiver app comes in. It's a thin client app for Citrix-based terminal services, so you need a Wi-Fi connection to work with it. (You can use 3G but it is slower.) If your company has already deployed Citrix thin clients for remote access to secured applications, using it on an iPad is a no-brainer. The app does a good job translating touch movements to mouse movements, although because Windows and its desktop apps weren't designed with touch in mind, you may have difficulty accurately clicking buttons and other controls -- you may have to zoom in for controls such as the close box, for example.

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