Why one company is ditching sales laptops for iPads

In the next few months, Jeff Letasse, vice president of IT for Conceptus, will hand out more than 220 iPads to every salesperson in the company.

In the next few months, Jeff Letasse, vice president of IT for Conceptus, will hand out more than 220 iPads to every salesperson in the company. He plans to wean them off of their trusty laptops and PDAs, with the hope of never having to buy another laptop for a salesperson again.

The dam holding back consumer devices in the enterprise "has broken wide open," Letasse says.

Soon, salespeople for Conceptus, a Silicon Valley medical manufacturer of a non-invasive, permanent female sterilization device called Essure, will be able to show glitzy presentations to doctors on the iPad. They'll be able to fire up a custom enterprise iPad app that taps into a back-end CRM system. Further down the road, a Citrix iPad app may let sales staff access a Windows desktop in a virtualized environment.

[ How big are the iPad's enterprise security risks? | Learn how to disaster-proof your mobile app before rollout (Reg Req'd), reports CIO.com. ]

When iPads first arrived at Apple Stores seven months ago, analysts predicted a few of these new-fangled entertainment gadgets might find their way inside companies. No one saw the sudden spike in enterprise adoption, not even Apple.

Today more than 65 per cent of Fortune 500 companies are deploying or piloting the iPad, Apple said during its most recent earnings call. "We haven't pushed it real hard in business, and it's being grabbed out of our hands," says Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

A recent Gartner report advises CEOs to get their IT departments on board with the iPad and prepare for widespread support of the iPad by mid-2011. Even marketing teams should come up with creative briefings as soon as possible that show how iPads could be used for competitive advantage.

Apparently, the marketing department at Conceptus got the Gartner memo. Marketing wanted to put all its sales collateral on the iPad, which, in turn, sparked a sweeping iPad project. "Our long-term goal is really to move away from laptops and home computers for our field sales force," says Eric Simmons, director of IT operations and ERP solutions at Conceptus. "This means they have to be able to do everything on their iPad."

Why such a dramatic move to the iPad?

Currently, every field sales person has a laptop, PDA and cell phone. Apps need to be on all three devices, while each device has its own management software. After iPads are rolled out to everyone in the first quarter next year, laptop purchases will become a thing of the past--and this should yield quite a bit of cost savings.

After factoring in the cost of devices and related software and support overhead, Letasse says, "Our footprint for a field sales rep is an $1,800 best-of-breed laptop and a $200 to $300 PDA with a two-year commit. The iPad will be about $1,500 per sales person."

The Five-Day iPad Euphoria

So far, 60 iPads have been given to managers in a pilot phase. Letasse was surprised to learn that one out of three users had never used an Apple iOS device. They needed to be trained on setting up a personal iTunes account, various finger gestures, features such as Airplane Mode, and other tasks Apple enthusiasts take for granted, he says.

Then comes the five-day iPad euphoria. New iPad owners simply can't put the gadget down. They download tons of free apps, transfer music and photos, share the iPad with family and friends. Sometimes, they run into memory constraints. Or they sync the iPad with iTunes on their infected home computer. One executive recently sent his iPad to the help desk because the iPad was missing some key apps after his kids played with it.

Judging from the pilot phase, Letasse says, "The exposure might be that the iPad requires a lot more support than we think." As a result, Letasse and Simmons began creating a training manual outlining 10 steps on how to become a good corporate citizen with an iPad.

Some user concerns still need to be worked out. For instance, there isn't a good way for users to save email attachments or edit them with PowerPoint or Excel on the iPad. Most of these documents must be handled in a certain way given security and compliance reasons.

Conceptus is looking at a few apps on the App Store as a temporary fix, but the long-term goal is to implement a Citrix virtual desktop solution sometime next year, whereby documents reside on the server and are accessed via a native iPad app.

"Until we get some level of virtualization on the device for those tasks, we don't have a firm answer," Letasse says. "There's a gap between now and when we can go without a laptop."

Security Blanket to Sleep at Night

Simmons frets over the thought of having 220 iPads containing confidential information on a device that also plays movies and games. When a gadget doubles as a business and personal tool, it's usually carried more often. This means the odds of an iPad getting lost or stolen are high.

It's strange, Simmons and Letasse say, to support a device that falls under strict regulations, such as SOX compliance and the marketing code of conduct, yet have an iTunes account and personal credit card attached to it. "These things tend to keep me up at night," Simmons says.

They looked at various management tools and settled on Zenprise. The mobile device management software provides visibility, from the Exchange server through the carrier infrastructure to the device itself. Simmons can pinpoint problems, such as where messages hang up. He now has the ability to remotely lock down or wipe an iPad.

But iPad management is still in its infancy. While the upcoming iOS 4.2 for the iPad has made great strides providing hooks that enterprises need (such as new APIs for device management, wireless distribution of custom apps, SSl VPN support, etc.), there is still a ways to go.

"It would be nice to have more granularity on the device for security restrictions, nice to have remote control APIs so we could provide better support for our users," Simmons says.

Oddly, one area where the iPad brings more control is in content generation. That is, the iPad isn't a great tool for creating documents and making changes to presentations. There is no mouse, no USB ports to save files. While some iPad users in the pilot program were given a physical keyboard peripheral, most users abandoned it after two weeks in favor of the iPad keyboard.

How does this translate into more control? "All of our sales presentations that salespeople provide to doctors in the sales cycle have to be approved," Simmons explains. "So we really try to limit their ability to create new PowerPoint presentations. Not being able to easily create content on the iPad is a good thing for us."

Enterprise App Conundrum

One other stumbling block: Conceptus would like to empower salespeople to pull up marketing collateral, as well as connect to the back-end CRM system, using a custom enterprise iPad app. A web-based app via Safari won't work because many customer sites, or hospitals, don't have publicly available Internet access.

Up until seven weeks ago, though, Conceptus couldn't qualify for Apple's iOS Developer Enterprise Program ($299 per year) and build the app. The program required a company to have more than 500 employees; Conceptus has 300 employees.

"We would have had to use Zenprise's license," Simmons says, adding, "There are always alternatives, you just have to look for them." It didn't come to that because Apple finally struck the employee-count requirement and Conceptus bought its own license.

Conceptus also wants salespeople to have certain apps available on Apple's App Store. But this, too, raises concerns. Right now, it's impossible to mass purchase apps and manage them. Thus, you're asking iPad users to buy the apps, expense them, and make sure they're up to date.

"It's a little frustrating," Letasse says. "Another area that's a little frustrating is: Do you go with 3G or Wi-Fi? AT&T connections aren't as reliable." All of these situations illustrate the kind of flexibility and humility a company needs when operating in Apple's world.

Brave New Consumer World

With Conceptus' iPad app development underway, final touches being put on the 10-steps training manual, and iPads ready for rollout beyond the pilot phase at the national sales meeting in January, Letasse and Simmons should be breathing a little easier.

Or are they? With the Hewlett-Packard Slate recently debuting and the BlackBerry PlayBook on deck, it's a good bet Letasse and Simmons will be testing these rival iPad devices as soon as possible in the event their CEO might want to bring one to work.

In the era of the consumerization of enterprise IT, CIOs never really know what's coming to retail electronic stores tomorrow. Nor do they know which gadgets will be a hit, which ones will fizzle. "It's not about being proactive or reactive," Simmons says, "you have to be adaptive."

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com.

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