The arrival last week of iOS 4.2, the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, was, we were told, a big deal for iPad users -- and for enterprises deploying or contemplating deploying Apple's tablet computer.
Several important new features introduced earlier on the iPhone and iPod Touch finally made it to the iPad -- multitasking, folders, unified email, wireless printing. They do make it a better business tool for mobile computing, arguably a much better one.
More importantly, perhaps, new mobile management and mobile security features make the iPad a little less scary for mobile IT types.
Some of the new end user features, such as AirPlay, which lets you stream media from an iPad to an AppleTV, appear at first glance to benefit only consumers, but may have applications for enterprise users as well.
Others such as the new Game Center app, only enhance iPad as a consumer toy. Game Center lets iPadders connect online for gaming. It's a potentially huge time waster that may actually make the platform less attractive for businesses.
So, is iOS 4.2 a net gain for iPad enterprises? We think so, but perhaps not as big a gain as the hype suggests. Let's look at each of the important features.
Multitasking with the iPad and iOS 4.2
To be clear, the limited 'multitasking' with 4.2 does not mean multiple windows open and visible on the screen, or multiple apps performing computer-intensive tasks in the background.
Some apps can perform some tasks in the background. If you're wirelessly downloading a file to the iPad, for example, and want to switch to Mail while you wait, the download will continue in the background -- or it will with GoodReader, a file manager app from Good.iWare Ltd.
, and other apps updated for 4.2.
Most streaming audio apps will perform their primary function in the background, so you could listen to business news with Audibilities LLC's free Business & Investing radio app
while editing a presentation in Apple's iWork Keynote. Or, of course, you could listen to Nine Inch Nails while reading Marvel Comics.
Another important benefit: quicker switching between mobile apps. Double tapping the Home button pops up a scrollable row of icons along the bottom of the screen showing all running apps. 'Running' is a misnomer, though. This is more a directory of recently used apps. Most, besides the active one, are dormant.
When you tap an icon, however, that app quickly becomes active again -- with slick revolving-door animation. And at least sometimes returns to the state you left it (though not always -- it apparently depends on how the app has been engineered for the new OS).
iPad and Folders with iOS 4.2
You can now organize apps into folders. Folder icons look like mini iPad desktops with tiny icons. When you tap one, it pops out a panel with full-size icons for the apps (or Web links) in that folder. The idea is to group apps by category to reduce clutter.
It mainly benefits users who install a lot
of mobile apps and then have to swipe back and forth between screens to find the one they want. It's hard to imagine an enterprise user with that many -- unless they clutter up the device with personal-use apps.
iPad and Mail app with iOS 4.2
The enhancements to the Mail app will benefit some, business users certainly among them. And for enterprise users only, iPad now supports multiple Exchange ActiveSync accounts on the same device, and it works with Exchange Server 2010.
Everybody gets the unified mailbox. Before 4.2, you could set up Mail to receive messages from multiple accounts, but could only view the inbox for one account at a time. To check another account, you had to tap a few times to get back to a list of accounts and select the one you wanted.
Now the main menu panel includes an option, All Inboxes, that opens a unified box with mail from all registered accounts. It's also slightly easier and quicker now to switch between accounts - should you not want to use the unified inbox feature.
The other most visible "enhancement" is the introduction of threaded conversations. Messages that are part of a thread appear with a number beside them -- the number of other messages in the thread. One tap displays a panel with the headers of those messages, the latest at the top. You have to tap again to display the full text of a message.
Some users will find this a convenience, others merely irritating. The feature is turned on by default, but you can turn it off in Settings.
AirPrint was one of the most hotly anticipated new features. The bad news is that you cannot, as Apple originally promised, print to any Wi-Fi printer. You can only print directly to a handful of Hewlett-Packard models that support Apple's AirPrint 'driverless' printing system -- at least for now. Presumably other AirPrint-compatible printers will appear.
The good news is that AirPrint works. We tested it with the recently released HP Photosmart Wireless e-All-In-One C310 series printer ($170). The printer had difficulty staying connected to one Wi-Fi router, but when set up with another, worked flawlessly in tests printing from iWork Pages and iPad's Photos app. (Other apps with support for AirPrint will appear.)
AirPlay could be useful for business users, though it's mainly intended for home use. It lets you send multimedia content from an iPad over a Wi-Fi network to an AppleTV, Apple's $100 streaming media player, which connects to a flat panel TV by HDMI cable.
In a company with AppleTV-equipped boardrooms, employees could bring slide presentations or video to meetings on their iPads. AppleTV is also small enough (0.9 x 3.9 x 3.9 in., 0.6 lbs.) that a road warrior could easily carry it to customer sites.
In our tests, streaming HD content from the iPad to an AppleTV worked very well, but performance did degrade -- video froze for rebuffering and the system sometimes didn't respond to commands from the AppleTV remote -- when iPad and AppleTV were outside the optimal coverage area for the access point. That shouldn't be a problem in most corporate boardrooms, though.
iPad management and security
Apple plugged a whole range of potential security vulnerabilities with iOS 4.2. (They're listed in this Knowledgebase
article.) The new OS also makes it possible to automatically encrypt email and attachments stored on an iPad, using the device passcode, the password for unlocking the iPad when it's turned on.
And iPad now supports SSL VPN, making it possible to connect to a corporate network via VPN On Demand. Juniper and Cisco have also announced apps to support SSL VPN on iOS devices.
Apple now allows enterprise users to host and wirelessly distribute custom apps to employees' iPads, and it makes APIs available to enable third-party solutions for wirelessly configuring and updating settings, monitoring corporate policy compliance and even wiping or locking lost or stolen iPads remotely.
Bottom line: iPad on iOS 4.2
The enhancements with iOS 4.2 are all -- well, almost all -- very welcome. Do they add up to a transformation of the platform? Well, it might be enough to push some enterprises over the edge, especially if they're getting big pressure from user communities.
But that doesn't mean the iPad is now a viable laptop replacement -- or at least not for most users.