When Apple’s “magical” tablet computer debuted earlier this year, it was touted as a multifunctional device designed for the tech-savvy and tech-illiterate — one that would “revolutionize” media consumption.

The sleek, lightweight iPad has a roughly 8-by-10-inch multitouch display, and as with any Apple product, a cultlike subculture following (and an opposing subculture disdain). Apple claims it sold more than 3 million iPads since its April U.S. market entrance, and the reviews generally have been positive regarding its usefulness. With a $499 starting price and weighing in at 1.5 pounds, the supergadget combines Web browsing, e-mail, video gaming, movie and video viewing, and music listening capabilities, among others.

“[The] iPad is our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price,” said Apple CEO Steve Jobs in a statement earlier this year. “[It] creates and defines an entirely new category of devices that will connect users with their apps and content in a much more intimate, intuitive and fun way than ever before.”

The trendy, dainty and easy-to-hold tablet computer is also breaking ground in the public sector: IT professionals and other officials are adopting, or considering adopting, Apple’s new gadget with hopes of going paperless and mobile — and saving money.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was one of the first notable politicians to embrace the technology, and Hawaii Rep. Charles Djou became the first member of Congress to use an iPad during a floor speech, CNN reported in late June.

The hype is tangible and the ads pervasive, but how does the iPad compare to other small devices, like netbooks and the Amazon Kindle, which have lower price tags? How will officials justify the costs to use the tablet computers to increase government effectiveness and efficiency?

Several state and city officials offered insight into these issues and were overall supportive of the iPad. But Apple’s baby isn’t infallible and likely won’t replace traditional laptops and PCs — though officials say it has many features that meet public-sector needs.

Passing the Test

“It’s a multifunction device, whereas the Kindle is a single-function device,” said Utah Chief Technologist and Strategic Planner Bob Woolley, who tested the iPad extensively prior to the state purchasing several for its governor, CIO, water quality inspectors and social workers. He wrote a report detailing 20 government use-case scenarios and co-wrote another report with Utah IT colleagues describing software and accessory recommendations for doing government work on the iPad.

“I wasn’t expecting it to work out as well as it did,” Woolley said. “It’s been very effective and surprisingly so.”

Woolley’s use-case scenarios covered note taking, battery life, printability, document syncing and access to state networks, to name a few. He found that the device performed well.

“It’s not useful to get something shiny and pretty, and then make an assessment if this has a business value,” he said. “As we look at use cases, we’re looking at workflows common in government that in some form need to be met.”

Cities Examine Potential

Along with Utah, several Virginia cities, Tennessee, and even Chicago’s public school system examined the iPad’s potential.

For Bill Summers, a city councilman in Clarksville, Tenn., the iPad represents tremendous cost savings, as the city prints countless City Council agendas, attachments and supporting documents. Summers approached the council with the idea of purchasing iPads for its 12 council members in June, and so far, the momentum has been positive.

“I’m looking at the savings long term, that was my primary goal,” said Summers, who hopes the devices will pay for themselves after 18 months. “We know what we’re looking to use them for, and so we want to make sure … that the steps won’t be so complicated for the nontech-savvy — we don’t want to create a nightmare for them.”

With some slightly older Clarksville City Council members, Summers wanted a device that would be easy to use, reliable and portable. And as with any tech investment, Summers wants to get the most out of them as possible — he hopes for four to five years of life expectancy for the council’s iPads.

And government-specific iPad apps are already available, as e-government firm NIC revealed five driver’s license practice test apps (for Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia) — the day the iPad was released.

“As soon as the iPad was unveiled, NIC started building these apps because we recognized how popular this device was going to be,” said NIC Chairman and CEO Harry Herington in a press release. “These are cool solutions for a very cool device. Tech-savvy teens and young adults are an important emerging market for e-government services.”

Life Without Paper?

IPad glam aside, use by public officials could have some unforeseen consequences, according to Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. In an early June blog post, Rhyne wrote that replacing paper with the iPad makes her a little nervous.

A self-described Apple geek, Rhyne took note of the Hampton, Va., City Council’s plan to buy iPads and ditch paper.

“There’s something about moving all meeting materials onto electronic devices,” she wrote. “Maybe it’s knowing that while looking at their iPad agendas, they could be using any number of apps that allow users to make — and share — annotations.

“They could be e-mailing, editing, exchanging documents all the while, out of the public’s eye or knowledge,” she continued. “Elected officials have been using computers at meetings for years now. This shouldn’t be any different. Maybe I’m paranoid. I hope I’m paranoid.”

When it comes to using iPads for government use, Woolley has simple advice: Test first and invest later. “Think about what those uses are and which ones matter,” he said. “Don’t get hung up on what I’ll call ‘technical geek criticism’ or [one] thing or another that is missing, because it may not matter.

“It’s a great Internet [and] mail device,” he added, “I use it extensively for note taking — it’s been absolutely invaluable for that purpose. The use cases and workflows that are common in government are the things that drive it, not the device.”

Karen Wilkinson  |  Staff Writer