The iPad has many shortcomings that would make the very concept of running a business from it laughable. It doesn’t run the key applications we use to conduct our business; syncing documents between your Mac and iPad requires iTunes as a middle man; it lacks sufficient hard drive space to store all the files you may need access to; you can’t view many of the documents you may be sent via email – and you certainly won’t be able to edit all of them; and the onscreen keyboard may be crippling if you are trying to create content using it. 

However, its small size, touch interface, and impressive battery life add up to one of the best devices ever built for working on the move. 

The most obvious difference between an iPad and a laptop is the way you interface with the device. Finger taps replace the mouse and cursor, and an onscreen keyboard is available for inputting text. The onscreen keyboard may be the first thing to convince you that the iPad is not a device for serious work. Compared to the iPhone’s tiny onscreen keyboard, the iPad version is nearly touch-typeable, but it’s still no match for a real QWERTY board when it comes to comfort and typing speed. 

This doesn’t have to be an issue. Many of the frustrations associated with the onscreen keyboard are eradicated by plugging in an external keyboard. The iPad supports external keyboards – officially it works with Bluetooth keyboards and Apple’s iPad Keyboard Dock. Some other keyboards (including Apple’s aluminium models) will give you an error message because they provide higher-power USB ports and therefore require more power than the iPad’s dock-connector port will provide. This doesn’t mean the keyboard won’t work, however. Once you dismiss that error message, the keyboard functions as normal. Plugging in an external keyboard gives you access to the keys for screen brightness, media playback, volume level, and the arrow keys. Many of the standard Mac keyboard shortcuts also work: Command-C for cut, Command-V for paste, Command-Z for undo, and so on. 

Our advice is to skip the Apple Keyboard Dock and use Apple’s standard Wireless Keyboard. While the iPad Keyboard Dock doesn’t rely on a wireless connection, doesn’t need batteries, has some useful iPad-specific keys, and can be attached to your computer to sync and power the iPad while you work, it’s heavy, it’s bulky, it wobbles, and you can’t adjust the position of the iPad when you’re using it. Apple’s Wireless Keyboard on the other hand is much more comfortable and portable, you’ll just need to find a way to prop up the iPad when you are using it. 

Even with the addition of an external keyboard the iPad will weigh less than your laptop, making the combination a desirable alternative to a laptop for lots of typing on the road. The iPad also doubles up as a handy display for Keynote presentations when visiting clients or making sales pitches. 

Applications are key
Keynote is one Apple app that is already available on the iPad. Apple quickly launched iPad versions of its Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet, and Keynote presentation package that make up its iWork office suite for the Mac. We expect all will be priced at a reasonable £5.99 each.

While the list of features in the three apps doesn’t rival that of Microsoft Office or even the Mac version of iWork, that’s not a huge issue given the relatively simple tasks you’re likely to undertake on an iPad. But Pages, Numbers, and Keynote all have one gigantic, overriding problem: Their support for document exchange with the non-iPad world is dismal. If you start a message in Mail, you have no way to attach an iWork document. You also can’t hook up your iPad to a computer via USB and simply drag documents back and forth. Instead, you must export documents from within iWork – as attachments, using iTunes as a conduit, or via the not-nearly-as-useful-as-it-sounds iWork.com.

All three apps claim to open Office documents, but some such documents appear garbled, and others produce only a cryptic error message. The programs strip out formatting that they don’t understand; as a result, that formatting disappears if you try to move the file back to a desktop suite. And you might not even be able to do that: Pages can export Word files, but Numbers can’t save in Excel format, and Keynote doesn’t do PowerPoint. 

These issues are so ugly for iWork, and for the iPad in general, that it’s hard to imagine they won’t get fixed. But users may not have to wait for Apple: iPad versions of the Quickoffice suite for handhelds and DataViz’s similar Documents to Go are in the works. Both of those mobile productivity packages have long histories of handling documents that were created elsewhere with panache. And they might turn out to be better options than the current version of iWork, even if they aren’t as elegant.