Business/IT and the iPad: Yes Please

Contrary to "popular" belief, the iPad is not going to hurt business or IT

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One of the less-pleasant parts of being an IT Manager with a Mac network who writes about the same is that unlike my non-Mac managing compatriots, I have to pay attention to all the news that surrounds any Apple announcement. The iPad is no exception. Nor is it an exception to Sturgeon's Law, especially in the...quality of commentary about the device. Most of it makes me wonder if the people behind the commentary aren't just using a Mad Libs application to generate said commentary. The accuracy wouldn't be much worse. Fortunately, the actual story is a lot less worrisome.

Looking past the hand-waving and worry at the iPad, what you discover is a device that is no worse for business and IT than the current iPhone/iPod Touch. (I'm including the as-yet unreleased 3G iPad model here as well.) First, yes, the iPad ships with an Exchange ActiveSync client, with the same functionality as you see on the iPhone/iPod Touch. So, even without signing your company up for Apple's Mobile Me service, you get all the EAS support on the iPad you get on the other two devices. Remote Wipe, some support for Exchange policies, etc.

Security-wise, it's as secure as an iPhone 3GS, for better or worse. That will get better in the upcoming iPhone 4.0 release, but for now, it is not the completely insecure landmine some folks think it is. You can mandate, via configuration profiles, passphrases, the complexity of said passphrases, even an "auto-wipe if n unsuccessful logins are tried." Could it be better, sure, and again, with 4.0, it will get better, but it's not garbage now. I've seen some comments about "well, if you jail break it...". The fix for that is simple: don't jailbreak it. If you want to install custom applications on an iPad, Apple gives businesses a way to do that now that completely bypasses the App Store and its policies. The downside, is, this is intended for businesses writing their own applications, but the opening is there, and it's supported.

On the configuration side, well, you do still need iTunes to do the initial out-of box setup and application loads. That won't get fixed until 4.0. However, you can do a completely Over-The-Air, (OTA) configuration for:

  • Allowing config profiles to be uninstallable by the user.
  • Requiring passcodes, passcode complexity, minimum length, passcode aging, auto-lock, passcode history, grace period for device lock, and number of failed entry attempts before the device is wiped.
  • Explicit content access, Safari use, YouTube use, iTunes Music Store use, App installation by user, Camera use, Screen capture
  • WiFi Network access configuration
  • VPN setup
  • POP/IMAP/SMTP account setup
  • EAS setup
  • LDAP setup
  • CalDAV setup
  • iCal Calendar subscriptions
  • Web Clippings
  • Certificate Installs
  • SCEP setup
  • 3G setup, (for 3G models only, obviousl)

You can't do everything, for example, you can't configure access to specific applications on the device, you can't push applications out, but you can still get a lot done, and again, 4.0 looks like it will fix a lot of the current weaknesses with regard to configuration. Note that everything I listed is right out of Apple's iPhone Configuration Utility, so it's not like I had to guess or even do a lot of work to figure this out.

In terms of actual use, well, there's no blanket answer. My iPad users are thrilled with them. They make meetings much easier for them, and for lightweight computing, I've yet to get any kind of bad feedback. As presentation devices, they excel. Once you deal with the weaknesses of Keynote on the iPad, in terms of fonts and some formatting, using an iPad as a presentation remote? It's pretty awesome. It also seems to be a solid tool for doing quick diagrams, drawings, etc. Oh, and the battery life? It's ten or more hours in real-world usage.

The iPad has a lot of potential in the IT arena too. For one, the existing SSH applications that are more than a little frustrating on the iPhone/iPod Touch become a lot nicer to use on the iPad. The same thing for various RDP and VNC clients. Going from the iPhone/iPod Touch screen to the iPad for that kind of remote access? Doesn't suck. There's even applications that let me monitor Mac OS X Server stats and conditions via the same data as Apple's own tools. Need to run Windows servers? There's some applications that let you deal with some of the common Active Directory issues, like password resets, unlocking accounts, etc. Along with the applications, the form factor on the iPad is slick. Just wedge it into a rack, and you don't have to spend as much time trying to find a place to put a laptop. It's not bad when you need something besides a KVM(/IP) hookup to check on things.

One thing I would dearly love to see though are some Dock Connector adaptors and applications that would let me tie into USB/Serial ports on routers and servers. That would truly elevate the iPad's usefulness for IT and Networking pros.

So no, the iPad isn't perfect for any and all business usage, but if you take a little time to look at your actual needs, it may be a better fit than you think it is.

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