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For Most Businesses, The iPhone Doesn't Matter

iPhone5A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Orlando and a car service met me at the airport. The driver was a nice man who spoke almost no English. But that made little difference. Because what was the first thing he did once I was settled in the backseat? He took out his iPad and updated the office with details of my pick-up time, number of bags and destination. When we arrived at the hotel where I was staying, the driver again completed the order with my drop-off time and took my credit card using the tablet. His office knew where he was at every turn by the device's built in GPS system and notified him of his next pickup.

Other than the election, the biggest recent news story seems to be all about the iPhone 5. We've heard about its record sales. The lines around the block at Apple stores. The rave reviews. The disappointment with Apple's mapping software, followed by the company's apology. It's been a regular soap opera. Yet for businesses, both large and small, the news is completely irrelevant. The iPhone 5 doesn't matter.

And neither does any smartphone. I use a Motorola phone that runs a version of Google's Android operating system. I have many clients that are still committed to their Blackberrys. All of these phones are fun to use. Many of us have the little productivity apps like Evernote, Square, Xpenser and others I've previously mentioned. We use our phones of course for making calls and checking our emails. We send texts and oftentimes rely on its navigation software to direct us to our customers' locations. Smartphones will always have a place in our business lives. But they won't be our primary business devices.

Like the car service who met me in Orlando, our primary business device will be tablets. And everyone running a business will need to make some big decisions about which tablet their companies will use very soon. Why tablets? Take a look at who's using these devices. Take a look at what they're being used for.

The people that work at my clients are working in warehouses. They are driving trucks. They are with crews performing services at their customers' homes and offices. They are on the factory floor running materials through machines. They are with their clients advising them on deals, helping them with their books and records and performing maintenance on their servers. They are picking up their customers at airports. These people are doing data entry. They need to complete workorders, create quotes, authorize material requisitions, check inventory levels, enter in their time and expenses and pull up a recent design. And when they perform these tasks, they expect to receive the most up-to-date information from their company's main system and to have the capability of updating the system themselves.

Because that's how most businesses, even the smallest of firms (even car services!), are doing business now and in the very near future. No more clipboards. No more sheets of paper. No price books or catalogs. No filling out slips. Everything will be accessed through our mobile portals. All data will updated and retrieved immediately.
I don't care how cool your new iPhone is. You can't do this stuff on a smartphone. Not unless you enjoy going blind and arthritic. Have you seen those guys fixing roofs and replacing pipes at a job site? They've got huge hands and big fingers. And even the nerdy ones like me who are at clients need the ability to enter in great quantities of nerdy data and need a device that can accommodate this. Could my driver have done the data entry as accurately and quickly on a smartphone as he did on his tablet? No way.
The smartphone isn't the answer. Tablets are the answer. And there are three tablets vying for the business community's attention: the iPad, the Nexus and the Surface. Which one will you choose?

The biggest benefit of the iPad is that it's...awesome! It's beautiful. It's fast. It's cool as anything. It's the deserved leader of the tablet industry. But is it the right tool for your business? The iPad is expensive, running about $500 to $600 per unit. It's also pretty locked down. Sure there are zillions of apps you can buy from iTunes but is there an inventory app or production management app that's really suitable for your business? And, although my car service managed to create a cool iPad application for their drivers, will you be able to customize it so that it's productive for you? There are a few Apple certified developers out there but even they have limited tools. Apple likes to keep its technology closely held so that it can work better and talk better to its other products. By doing so it makes the iPad potentially much less flexible as a workplace device.

The Google Nexus, which uses Google's Android operating system, is much more flexible. And it's less expensive too, running about $200-$300 per unit. Businesses who decide to standardize on the Nexus can enjoy the operating system's open architecture. You can hire inexpensive programmers to develop that perfect custom app you've always needed for your business. You don't have to compromise on features. But be careful...with flexibility comes risks. Because the Nexus is so open you're subject to security and privacy issues. Your device or your system may be compromised or open to hacking.

The dark horse in the battle is Microsoft's Surface tablet, which is due to be released by the end of this month. Priced comparably to the Galaxy at about $200 the Surface is Microsoft's attempt to gain a foothold in the tablet market. It'll run their much anticipated new version of Windows and be compatible with all things Microsoft, like Office, Sharepoint, and its other hosted and desktop applications. The Surface will also come with its own built in keyboard and an army of Microsoft developers and partners who are hungry to write business applications for their clients that will integrate with their back end databases and websites. If the Microsoft community, and their clients, embraces this new device as their primary business mobile tool it could place the Surface as a strong player in the tablet industry.

So which device will you choose? The decision won't be as hard as you think. My advice is to talk to your software vendor. That'll tip the scales.

For example, I recently spoke at Sage Software's annual partner and user conference. Sage, like most other larger software vendors (Microsoft, Salesforce.com, SAP, Epicor,  etc.), are downright giddy over the mobile application future. Each new device on the market is an opportunity to write software and that's what they do. The software industry is making its plans. And Sage is a good example. They're writing mobile applications that integrate directly with their mainstream ERP and CRM systems. These applications will do just what my clients will require: provide the ability to create workorders, enter opportunities, edit a quote, check prices...all directly from their systems via a mobile device.

Which means that you may not need to go to the expense and aggravation of creating your own mobile applications. Depending on your software vendor that application may have already been created or is in the works. This is what they do for a living so let them do it. Talk to them. Find out what their plans are. Ask what devices they're targeting for future applications. Some vendors may be writing applications that will work on the iPad, Nexus and Surface. Others may be limiting their development to only one of those devices. Whatever they choose should be your choice.

Sure, the iPhone 5 is cool. But the right tablet is much more profitable.

Gene Marks
Gene Marks, a columnist, author, and business owner, writes monthly online management and technology columns for Forbes and Business Week and a bi-weekly column that appears nationally in American City Business Journals. His books include Gene\'s books include the #1 Amazon Small Business Best Seller The Streetwise Small Business Book of Lists (Adams Media), The Small Business Desk Reference (Alpha Books, 2004), Outfoxing The Small Business Owner - Crafty Techniques for Creating a Profitable Relationship (Adams Media, 2005) and The Complete Idiot\'s Guide To Successful Outsourcing (Alpha Books, 2005).

He owns and operates the Marks Group PC, a ten-person firm that provides technology and consulting services to small and medium-sized businesses. Before starting the Marks Group, Marks spent nine years in the entrepreneurial services arm of the international consulting firm KPMG in
Philadelphia where he was a senior manager.
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