For the final phase of testing I will review the practicality of the iPad as a tool for presenting product and company information. This has potential for dual purposes: Presenting information to customers as a sales tool, and presenting information to employees (sales reps and others) as a training tool.
The basic ways to present product information are by showing documents or media files, such as:
- PDF files
- PPT presentations
- JPG pictures (or other image file types)
The iPad can handle showing any of these types of files, presuming that you have a way to get the files onto the iPad. As discussed in Part 3 of this series, one fairly easy way to do this is with a Box.net account. Using that system, it is possible to upload the files to the Box cloud from another computer, and then access them from the iPad. You can organize your Box files using folders so that your various content will be easy to find and access.
You can view any of these types of files directly in the Box app. Here is how they work out:
- PDF files (brochures, flyers, etc). A. These can be opened directly in Box and they display just as they should. Brochures and flyers look great on the iPad display.
- PPT Presentations. B-. The PowerPoints don’t work particularly well when viewed from the Box app. They can only be viewed in portrait orientation, and you go through them by scrolling with your finger. Using the Office2HD app for viewing the PPT files works out much better. From that app you can access your PPT files, and once you open one you can view it full screen in landscape mode via the play function. A tap on the screen advances the slide, or you can swipe left or right to go back and forward. If the PPT files are large in size, (such as 5 MB) it takes a while to get one opened, 30 seconds or more. During my testing this was not a stable situation, sometimes Office2HD would lock up when loading a PPT, requiring a restart. It probably is a good idea to work with smaller PPT files. Also, the formatting does not always carry over cleanly. Most of the slides look OK, but some have weird formatting problems that are not present in when viewed on a PC (see example below). If there is any interactive programmed in the PPT, such as buttons that jump to certain slides, these do not function (more on this later). All in all, showing PPT files is workable, but it could use a lot of improvement.
- Videos. A. Selecting a video, getting it going, and then watching it full screen in landscape mode all work well directly from the Box app.
- Pictures. D.. Viewing pictures is a mess from within Box. They display strangely, always in the upper corner, you cannot center them. Some pictures flow past the edge of the display and there is no easy way to view them full screen. Overall it is pretty much a mess. So, we will have to try another system.
If showing a lot of product pictures is a goal (which is something we do), then Box.net is not a good solution. A better tool would be the Photos app that is built into the iPad. It turns out this is a nice tool for viewing pictures, but once again we will need to sort out how to get those pictures onto the iPad. For now, the easiest way I have been able to do it is by syncing with iTunes. This solution works OK, but is not too desirable because it adds so many steps to the whole process. But at least once it is done you have a decent solution for viewing pictures. We are already stuck with having to connect the iPad to a computer running iTunes anyway, although with the latest OS5 update in theory it could be possible to use an iPad with no computer.
In order to get any significant number of pictures into the iPad in a way that they can be reasonably accessed, they need to be organized into a folder on the source computer. To help organize the pictures, they can be stored in subfolders. The subfolders will sync to the iPad as Albums which will organize the pictures into groups. Once the pictures folder is organized on the source computer, the iPad is connected, iTunes is launched, and then it is a fairly simple matter to sync you designated folder.
Once you have synced the photos to the iPad, you can use the Photos app to view them, which works much nicer than the Box app. You can look at Albums to keep things organized, and view the pictures neatly in the viewer. You can also view a slideshow of an album if desired. So for viewing photos this way, we move up to an A.
Since we now are connecting the iPad to a computer and syncing with iTunes, we might as well load videos that way as well. If you do this, you won’t have to consume your Box.net account space with video files. Syncing the video files to the iPad is simple and works similarly to syncing the photos. The videos are stored in a folder and then that folder is synced to the iPad, and you are done. (Note: All videos I am testing with are Apple-compatible MP4 files so they play with no problem on the iPad. It is outside of our scope here to launch into an analysis of all of the different kinds of video files that can be used, that is a long discussion for another time).
Viewing the videos works simply enough in the iPad Videos app. You can view them full screen and everything looks nice. But once again you bump into an inherent limitation of the device, which in this case seems odd given that one of its intended strong points is as a media consumption device. There is no way to organize your video files into some sort of groups, which is always handy once you start to get a big collection. Having things broken up into categories of some kind helps to make it easier to find the one item you need at the moment. With the Videos app, your videos are just dumped into one location and that’s all you get. It would be great to be able to create some folders, or to organize them into categories in some way, but no such luck at least for now on the iPad. So while the iPad is a nice tool for viewing videos, the file management aspect limitations knock it down to about a B- in my opinion.
Using the iPad to show information to audiences
All of the options described so far are suitable for showing product information to one person or a small group of people using the iPad. Sometimes we have the requirement to show information to a larger group of people. This is also possible but will require the purchase of extra accessories that don’t come with the iPad.
There are two basic ways to go for this requirement: You can connect the iPad to a projector or to an HDTV. One way to do this is with the Apple Digital AV Adaptor, part number MC953ZM/A. This is commonly available from Apple or other merchants for around $39.00 US.
This accessory is connected to the iPad connector port and the other end is connected to an HDMI cable. I have tested this with a typical 1080p HDTV and it does indeed work well. Note that apparently there are differences in the way this adapter works between an iPad 1 and an iPad 2. With the iPad 2 it is possible to run in “mirrored” mode where everything that is on the iPad screen shows up on the TV. Note that some things look a bit strange due to the difference in the aspect ratios, HDTVs being 16:9 (or 1.77) while the iPad is 4:3 (or 1.33). For example when viewing a portrait PDF file, it will sit in the middle of the HDTV screen with a lot of blank space on either side. But pictures and video work very well through this adaptor. Video is played directly on the HDTV fullscreen and if there is sound it is passed through the HDMI cable to the TV.
Presumably this adaptor would work equally well with a project that has an HDMI connector, although I have not tested this yet. Unfortunately if you need to connect to a projector that is lacking an HDMI input, you will need to purchase yet another adapter which is the Apple VGA Adapter for about $29.00. I have not tested this adapter yet.
What about interactive multimedia content?
We have established that the iPad has decent potential for presenting company and product information in the form of documents, pictures, and videos. It is good to be able to show these sorts of files, but it has limitations as well. This is a haphazard collection or information that can only be semi-organized to make browsing the information easier if there is a lot of it. For presenting product information it would be better to have an interactive application that would have some sort of front-end interface with buttons or links that the user can use to select various options, narrow down choices, and so forth. The ideal way to accomplish this would be to create an iPad app custom-made for this purpose. There are all sorts of iPad apps that are available that serve this purpose. There is one major drawback to this approach however: you must have the programming resources to create and publish an iPad app. It is not a simple undertaking for a company without internal programming capability, and I have read that the total cost to create one simple iPad app can approach $25,000. For companies with limited budgets this is not a viable option.
One decent way to produce interactive content with a much lower investment in tools and time is using Flash. Unfortunately Flash is completely locked out of the iPad at this time so this is not an option.
Another possible way is via the latest web design standards such as HTML5, CSS3, jQuery and others. In fact, one good way to display interactive content on an iPad is simply via web pages from the internet opened in the Safari browser. As long as the web pages have been properly constructed they will display well on the iPad, and you will have a way to provide interactive content with links to various pages, pictures, etc. However this method also has a major drawback – it requires a connection to the internet either via wireless or 3g. If you are in the situation that we are typically in within our work environment, it will be fairly common to be at a location where wireless internet access is not available (this is due to visiting companies with locked-down network infrastructure). So the best way to exploit HTML5 and related technology would be to store the web pages locally. Once again we run into a constraint as there is no particularly easy way to do this. It is possible to save a web page as an archive file, put it in Box.net, and then view it offline. But there is still limited functionality as far as interactive linking between pages. This area is newly developing and needs more investigation as new tools are coming online.
Push versus Pull Product Presentation via the iPad
When we discuss the idea of a company employee bringing an iPad to a customer to show them product information, regardless of which of the above methods is used, we are talking about a “Push” presentation. In other words, we have garnered an audience with the customer and we will use that moment in time to show our information. This is great and it is something we do all of the time. But the other way that a customer could get our information is via “Pull”. In this case, the customer will look at the information on their own, assuming it is available to them and they have some interest. This has the advantage that the customer can look at our product information at any time without us needing to be there. Of course, any time a customer goes on the internet on their own and finds our company web pages and reads the product information that is there, this is a Pull kind of interaction. This sort of Pull marketing is a trend for the future and the new crop of mobile devices such as the iPad are contributing greatly to that process. A major strength of the iPad is easy-to-use, portable, and convenient web-surfing. Besides being a tool we could use to present information to our customers, the iPad becomes another way that a customer could access our information on their own. It would be ideal to offer them an iPad app that would do that, but we can still take advantage of this interaction by making sure that our web pages are properly designed to display well on an iPad in addition to other computing devices. In this case we can hopefully assume that customers will be using the iPad while connected to the internet, so our content will be available to them.
The iPad does have good potential for use as a presentation tool to show customers product and company information. With a little bit of planning it is possible to share documents, presentations, images and videos. It can be used for small groups or large groups of people with the right tools.
When compared to the tool we have typically used for this purpose, the laptop computer, the iPad:
Advantages: Instant-on, easy to hand around form factor makes the sharing process much smoother with less awkward fumbling around. Also it is unlikely that we would even have to worry about battery power assuming we start with a good charge, something that is often an issue with laptops resulting in more fumbling for cords, outlets, etc.
Disadvantages: We are still a bit hamstrung by the lack of a cohesive file system which can be used to organize information. The lockout of Flash makes some things more difficult.