Opinion: iPod touch is a business tool, too

Editor’s Note: This story is reprinted from Computerworld. For more Mac coverage, visit Computerworld’s Macintosh Knowledge Center.

Apple’s new iPod touch is a revolutionary device, much like its iPhone cousin. It offers in one svelte package a host of cool features, everything from Web browsing over Wi-Fi to VPN access and a host of enterprise-useful apps. Sure, you can listen to music, but there's also a practical side, the side that makes it a perfect tool for business. (I know what a lot of you are thinking: In your dreams. Just stick with me a minute.)

Having spent some time with Apple’s latest iPod, which hit the market in September and starts at $299, I think there’s a lot of on-the-job use you can get from this little guy—so much so that you might even be able to expense it at work. Not only does it arrive out of the box with useful software, but apps that can be added to it with a little tweaking make it feature-filled enough to keep almost any road warrior happy.

Not convinced? Let me break these down by application, and feel free to file this list away for any future iPod touch purchase order justification. That way, when you sit down with the CFO to explain why you want, er, need one, you’ll have a ready-made checklist handy.

The Web

First and foremost, the iPod touch has a darn good almost-full-featured Web browser—not just a mobile browser, but a real browser. Safari on the iPod Touch is much better than anything else out there. The scrolling, panning and zooming around that’s possible put it in a usability league with far larger devices like tablet PCs.

While it doesn’t do Java or Flash (yet), it will still handle 90 percent of the business Web apps out there. And you can open up eight or more different Web windows at a time. That’s great for multitasking productivity.

Mobility

It sounds obvious, but it’s worth repeating: The iPod touch can go with you everywhere—in the conference room, at a client’s office, in the car, tucked away in your shirt pocket, even in the bathroom. It weighs just over 4 ounces and is 4.3 inches long, 2.4 inches wide and less than one-third of an inch thick. And it still boasts the best 3.5-inch screen I’ve ever seen.

VPN

As more office apps move to the Web, the browsing functions make this device more valuable. It’s not just for public Web apps, either. For companies with a VPN, Apple has included some of the most widely used VPN software out there—Cisco notwithstanding—to allow you to connect to Windows and Mac VPN servers. Once connected, you’ll have access to all of your internal Web applications. Talk about an ultraportable office!

Contacts

A few years back, companies bought contact books for their employees. As the digital age progressed, those contacts got rolled into laptops and smart phones.

The iPod offers yet another extension of that evolution, allowing users to browse through contacts on a large but mobile screen. With touch-screen ease, just tap, flick, tap again and your contact info is staring you in the face. It is also easier to add contacts from a business card to the iPod touch than to a typical phone because of the iPod's QWERTY keyboard, large screen and large tapping area.

Clock and Calculator

The world clock is extremely useful when traveling across time zones, crucial for the jet-setting international exec. The same is true for the built-in alarm clock.

And while it’s as simple as they come, the Calculator application works just as you’d expect, whether calculating mileage reimbursement costs or figuring out the tip on that two-martini business lunch. Everyone needs one once in awhile—the calculator, not the martini.

Photos, videos and music

The iPod includes a great photo viewer for finding and quickly displaying image files for clients. It also offers relatively high-resolution playback of videos, whether commercial, instructional, artistic or just plain fun.

And the music software is great for listening to audiobooks and language tapes—being a recent Paris transplant, I can attest to this—and frankly, there’s a lot of learning that can take place during the inevitable downtime between business meetings or flights.

Calendar

While Apple handed iPod users a major blow by disabling the write functionality in its calendar app—you’ll need an iPhone for that—the scaled-back software on the iPod Touch is still a useful tool for taking your desktop timetable on the road—even if you can’t edit or sync it on the fly.

Hacking the iPod

That limited functionality brings me to my next point: This gadget could be so much better if Apple just let us play with it a little bit. And while the company has announced plans to offer a software development kit for the iPhone and iPod touch next year, there’s nothing out yet, at least not officially. I decided it would be fun to see how much more business functionality I could get out of the iPod touch after applying a few much-touted hacks.

Note: If you have to tell the CFO you plan to hack your iPod, you’re not likely to get an OK. And besides, why risk invalidating your warranty? So don’t try this at home. All I’m pointing out is how much potential the device has, and how much more value it will offer, once new apps are created. And they will be created.

Having a hacked iPhone, I lifted a lot of the applications I already own directly from that device and transferred them to the iPod Touch. Some preferences files and bundles needed to be moved as well. Once installer.app was on my iPod, hacking it took only a few minutes. Here’s a sampler of what I added, which should give you an idea of how powerful this device could grow to be.

The first thing I added was the Notes application from my iPhone. This is a simple, yet extremely elegant program that allows you to take notes using the keyboard on the iPod. It will also sync with the Notes in Leopard. Apple should have included it in the iPod Touch as a default application.

Next, I added the Maps app. While it is of little use in the car without AT&T’s EDGE Network—which is what the iPhone uses when a Wi-Fi connection isn’t available—Maps is great for plotting out trips beforehand and works just as well as it does on the iPhone. Think of it as Google Earth in your pocket.

The most important thing for me is having an offline mail client. What better than Apple’s mobile Mail app for the iPhone? It works fantastically well on the iPod with four concurrent IMAP clients. My only gripe is that you can’t set the frequency for checking the e-mail servers to less than five minutes. However, because you can write offline and sync when you hit a wireless access point, it is a natural fit. Why Apple chose not to include it is beyond me, unless it wants to upsell users to the iPhone.

The Weather app—another iPhone fav of mine—is great for quickly checking forecasts in your favorite destinations. It also caches this information for offline use, making it another good fit.

Apple’s iPhone applications aren’t the only ones that work well with the iPod Touch; hacked third-party apps work pretty well, too.

The first one I tried was VNSea.app, a VNC remote desktop client. The installation was painless, it connected to my Mac OS X and Windows servers quickly, and the remote functionality worked well.

The only downside is the obviously small screen, which doesn’t have the ability to pan. That means you only control the upper 320-by-480-pixel portion of your screen. I found that if I put my important apps up top, I was in pretty good shape. It also makes a great Wi-Fi remote control for your Mac mini media center.

Next, I added the Apollo IM client. Although I prefer the interface of another mobile application, MobileChat, Apollo lets me connect to my corporate MSN network as well. So for my purposes, it gets the nod. This is a perfect example of an application the iPod Touch needs. If Apple won’t add it, then it should at least let others do so.

Another biggie for me is RSS feeds. Google Reader on mobile Safari is great, but again, it’s not very helpful when offline. Thankfully, the hacker community has stepped in with RSS.app. It works exactly as an offline RSS reader should. Add in the feeds you want, and it polls them at regular intervals. Whenever you have a little downtime on the road, use it to catch up on your favorite news.

Perhaps the most glaring hole in the iPhone/iPod software lineup is the lack of GPS. That’s where Navizon’s Soft GPS application comes in handy. It makes a great companion to the mobile Maps application, and while not always accurate to the precise street or neighborhood, it makes a great starting point. On the iPod touch, Soft GPS uses data about your Wi-Fi IP address, leaving a lot of room for error. (The iPhone version uses cellular radio tower triangulation and is much more accurate.)

Also missing from the iPod—and from the iPhone, for that matter—are offline reference libraries and e-book readers. I installed weDict.app and Books.app. The weDict application allows you to install a number of offline encyclopedias, and there are more than 20 available online.

Books.app is an e-book reader. Apple is missing a huge market by not putting these types of applications on its mobile devices. The iPod touch screen, like the one on the iPhone, is amazingly bright, and the fonts are smooth and easy to read. Text-centric apps are a natural.

So where does this leave the intrepid business traveler about to make his case to the finance folks at the office? It’s a pretty simple message: Apple has created a fantastic device with some amazing software that makes it a competitive piece of business hardware right now—and opens the door for even more advances down the road.

Sure, it looks as though the marketing gurus at Apple decided to differentiate and delineate the iPhone and iPod as, respectively, “iPro” and “iToy” devices. Be that as it may, the iPod touch offers a number of useful tools for business users already. Spell that out to the CFO and he might just agree. Heck, the CFO might suddenly see the need for an iPod touch, too.

[ Seth Weintraub is a global IT management consultant specializing in the technology needs of creative organizations, including The Paris Times, Omnicom and WPP Group. He has set up and managed cross-platform networks on four continents and is an expert in Active Directory/Open Directory PC and Macintosh integration. ]

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