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Up in the air with only an iPad: what happens when a Road Warrior leaves his laptop behind?

23 July 2010 · by Steve Nilan

The iPad needs real Office apps or Office-compatible Apple apps to cross the business productivity threshold.

ipad for professionals who travel Let me establish my road cred. There isn't any official “Road Warrior” certification, but if there were I believe I would qualify. I've flown more than a million miles over the years and belong to every hotel, airline and rental car reward program known to man. My million miles pale in comparison to the 10 million that George Clooney's character claimed in Up in the Air.

To be clear, I'm no George Clooney — check my blogger's mug shot for proof — but an upgrade to first class remains one of life's great joys. Last year I earned quasi-Clooney status while flying 100,000 miles for DTI. My trusty sidekicks were my 3-year old HP laptop and 3G iPhone. They are well-behaved travel companions. That's true other than my constant worrying about battery life plus the agonizing Windows start-up and shutdown times. The 6.5-pound laptop was also a bit heavy — even though I once traveled the world with a 16-pound Macintosh Portable complete with carrying case and 60-minute battery life! I had no compelling reason to change.

Then along came the iPad.

I wrote about the magical tablet after the Steve Jobs' show in February and then joined the lemmings at my local Apple Store on April 3rd to get my hands on the ultra-hyped machine. It was beautiful and fast, but it wasn't love at first touch because I didn't see where it fit in. I'm a gadget guy but it wasn't filling a digital gap in my life.

To my surprise, the iPad slowly and subtly grew on me as my go-to device to check e-mail, headlines, baseball scores, weather reports, and flight schedules. On business trips, I began to reach for it first at airports and in meetings. The iPad battery lasts longer than a work day and the startup and shutdown times are like flipping a light switch. I also developed an iPad digital typing technique that falls somewhere between texting with my thumbs and real typing. I kept up with e-mail on the iPad better than on the iPhone. I even used it for a few one-on-one customer presentations where it was a big hit. The idea crept into my mind that maybe I could just about hit the road without my laptop. I needed a trial run which presented itself when I had a 2.5 days of internal meetings at DTI's offices near Salt Lake City.

Just to be safe, I backed up a few key files on a thumb drive and tossed the iPad in my bag. My first laptop-free bonus was sailing through the Sacramento airport x-ray. There was no need to fumble with my carry-on bag to place the iPad in a separate bin. The TSA folks know that the iPad is not some clunky old laptop!

When I got to the office, I hit the ground running. I opened the iPad at my desk and instantly connected to the corporate wifi network. I breezed through e-mail and found I wrote shorter responses — a productivity boost for both sender and receiver. Then I received a notification from our HR OpenAir system to submit my timesheet and approve others in my department. I had the OpenAir link and my login information set up on my laptop back in Sacramento — not on the iPad.

With Apple, when in doubt, you check the App Store, and there I found and installed the OpenAir app. Since we use it for expense reports, too, getting OpenAir on the iPad was essential for me. I crossed that hurdle and ran right into a wall: Excel. Like every business, we use it for budgeting, modeling and even as a departmental project tracking tool. Back to the App Store but this time my luck ran out. Excel was conspicuous by its absence. In its place, Apple offered Numbers which I downloaded for US$9.99. I quickly discovered that touch screens and spreadsheets don't play well together and Numbers doesn't save as Excel files. There was an uproar in Marketing when I sent out the weekly project spreadsheet as a Numbers file. The PC users said “I only see dots when I open it!” I decided to retreat from the no man's land between Microsoft and Apple. We used the previous week's Excel and muddled through our staff meeting.

And so it went. My iPad was wonderful at the airport and on the plane. It was still pretty impressive in the office until I ran into the grim reality of Microsoft Office. The iPad needs real Office apps or Office-compatible Apple apps to cross the business productivity threshold. That's what it will take for Road Warriors to leave our laptops at home — either that or you can probably just bribe us with bonus mileage and first class upgrades.

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