Small businesses are using technology to help them operate more efficiently and cost-effectively in an increasingly competitive environment. Each Monday, USA TODAY looks at new ways companies are gaining an innovative edge in a tough economy.
NEW YORK — Theater design consultant Joshua Allen doesn't routinely travel the country with a laptop for work anymore. The Apple iPad has become Allen's go-to traveling companion. "At first I was hesitant," he says. But then, "My bag got so much lighter … and my chiropractor bill went down."
What made lightening the load possible for Allen and his colleagues at Raleigh, N.C.-based Theatre Consultants Collaborative are the numerous apps designed for the iPad to help folks operating smaller enterprises conduct business. Allen relies on at least a half-dozen apps that help him take notes, consult architectural drawings and even see behind walls.
Indeed, for all the attention that the iPad gets as a play device that lets you browse the Web, read books, watch movies and knock down a few pigs with Angry Birds, more and more people at the wheel of small companies are turning to Apple's popular tablet for productive purposes, while potentially saving the business time and money. Yankee Group analyst Carl Howe says 72% of businesses that have tablets are using the iPad. And the iPad boasts by far the largest number of productivity apps for tablets, leaving Android, Microsoft and Research In Motion's BlackBerry to play catch-up.
Apple has been pushing the iPad's business virtues and along the way trying to woo the small-business crowd with some of its own apps. Most notably, there's the optional iWork suite consisting of iPad versions of the Numbers spreadsheet, Pages word processor and Keynote presentation program, each $9.99.
But small businesses are increasingly summoning apps from outside developers that turn the iPad into an all-purpose hub for telephony, communications and e-commerce, and a gateway to the PC at the office — or to all the files stored in the cloud, through such services as Box, Dropbox and SugarSync.
The scope of business apps for the iPad is as broad as the companies and entrepreneurs that take advantage of them. A company might bill a customer through the iPad using an app such as Invoice2go ($14.99), scan business cards and receipts through Pixoft's TurboScan ($1.99) and keep tabs on customers through FileMaker's recently redesigned Bento 4 database ($9.99).
Most people don't think of the iPad as a phone. But several apps can let it function as one. Donnie Clapp, communications manager at MercuryCSC, an outdoors-oriented communications and public relations firm in Bozeman, Mont., says the company got rid of its traditional — and pricey — land-line PBX phone system and is now using the Line2 app from Toktumi on iPads, the iPhone and on desktop PCs. It lets iPad owners place calls over Wi-Fi or cellular networks. There are free and pay-as-you-go plans, and businesses can hold conference calls for up to 20 people. "A lot of us carry iPads around to meetings, and it's nice to have our phones with us," Clapp says.