BI firm takes iPads over laptops

MicroStrategy Inc., a business intelligence software maker, has deployed 1,100 Apple iPads to executives and sales personnel to conduct critical job-related tasks. The company said it expects to 700 more iPads to be deployed soon.

MicroStrategy is one of the largest business users of iPads to go public about its deployment. Most other businesses that have talked about iPad use have around 100 users to date.

MicroStrategy said it is running some applications that can run on both the iPad and iPhone, while others are designed to fully take advantage of the larger 9.7-inch iPad touchscreen. For example, the some of the latter applications help sales personnel easily show off videos or live demonstrations to customers during face-to-face meetings, said Mark LaRow, senior vice president of products.

Apple has wisely made it possible to import and export documents, spreadsheets and presentations in the Microsoft Office formats of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, which are almost universally used by businesses large and small, he noted. “Apple is breaking the mold for mobile computing,” LaRow gushed.

From the end-user perspective, one of the biggest advantages the iPad has over a laptop is its instant-on capability. “People don’t wait two minutes for it to boot like with a laptop,” he said. “It’s instant on, and that’s a big deal.”

But instant-on is far from MicroStrategy’s major justification in using the iPad.

LaRow said its total cost-of-ownership should prove far more prudent for the iPad than for laptop computers.

In fact, LaRow said that the company compared the TCO of iPads and laptops and the result was “wildly in favor of iPad.” Microstrategy typically spends about US$1,000 a year to support each laptop over a three-year life, including software licenses, maintenance and hardware. By comparison, the company concluded that the iPad would cost just $400 a year, though it is expected they will last only two years, he said.

While some attorneys using iPads must still rely on desktops or laptops for long document creation or editing, LaRow said he and others in his company find that using a Bluetooth keyboard with the iPad is working just fine for creating long memos. LaRow is also using a Bluetooth mouse supplied by Apple when he sits to use the iPad.

LaRow said the iPad could be very useful for “anybody who stands up on the job,” such as a worker using clipboards or a warehouse manager.

MicroStrategy developers are also working to create iPad versions of its popular BI tools that could be used by insurance claims agents, customer service reps and retail sales workers, he said.

The company has offered versions of the BI tools for BlackBerry devices for three years. Sales of those tools are growing modestly, but the upcoming BI software products for iPad and iPhone are drawing “gigantic interest,” he said.

Internally, MicroStrategy executives are able to use the iPad or iPhone to quickly review routine requests for worker expenses, purchase orders and more by using a custom-built application called Corporate Request Center. The managers can easily reject, approve or send the requests back for more information.

The approval process is a little quicker via an iPad, but mainly it is more convenient for users since the iPad can go almost anywhere. “Before, that was done only on a desktop, but as a workflow tool, using the iPad and iPhone has meant a big boost in productivity because you can use it wherever you are, when you have a spare moment,” LaRow said.

E-mail access is probably the biggest function of the iPad, he said.

LaRow hopes to take advantage of video chat and collaboration capabilities in a next generation of iPads. He also hopes Apple adds the ability to input commands by voice. improving on the capability now offered by some third party tool makers.

“Video chat and collaboration on documents would be a great enhancement. If you watch people using iPads at work, they often sit shoulder to shoulder pointing at something on the same screen. If you could extend that experience so it’s no longer shoulder to shoulder that would be good,” LaRow said.

While MicroStrategy didn’t intentionally choose iPads to be devices that workers would use in their personal lives, LaRow said the company has found “when everybody brings the iPads home, the kids grab them” for access to games, videos and more.

In essence, workers “like to use it … it’s more engaging,” he concluded.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen , or subscribe to Matt’s RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected] .

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