Is Apple taking the iPad business seriously?

iPadFrom its launch earlier this year, Apple has pushed the iPad as consumer-centric device. No big surprise – that’s long been Apple’s focus for the iPod, iPhone and even for Mac computers.

But the signs are mounting that Apple is starting to realize, and even embrace, what many of its users have seemingly known since day one – the iPad is also a capable (and fashionable) business device.

But what part does the channel play in the iPad? More than one might think.

Ingram Micro CEO Greg Spierkel told Reuters on the heels of the distributor’s third-quarter results last week that Apple is loosening the reins on the iPad. Initially available only through the company’s own Apple Store retail and etail locations, distribution’s involvement signals a shift to a wider channel opportunity.

“What it’s telling us is that there’s a (business to business) opportunity starting to develop for these devices, which is not necessarily where they were targeted initially,” Spierkel told Reuters in an interview.

One significant use of tablets by businesses is by sales representatives in the field, he said.

This move isn’t alone. Apple and a select few partners have made some other moves over the last week that suggest the company is seeing increasing interest for the tablet, particularly in the U.S.

In its usual business update at the recent Back to the Mac media event, Apple noted that the iPad is in use or testing by 65 per cent of the Fortune 500, while the iPhone is in use or testing by 80 per cent of the same community. To help support that, as well as additional corporate Mac sales, Apple has enlisted Unisys to provide maintenance and other services to big business and government agencies in the U.S. that opt to go with Apple gear.

That appears to include application development for Apple’s mobile devices, according to one Bloomberg report.

Even before the partnership, Unisys had begun creating iPhone applications for government clients. One, used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, lets border patrol agents check the status of border-crossing technology from an iPhone.

As part of its arrangement with Apple, Unisys expects to build applications for other government agencies, he said.

Meanwhile, Apple’s U.S. iPhone carrier partner AT&T has started to ramp up selling the iPad with 3G connectivity to business users, making business rates for Internet data available starting late last week.

“iPad is a great fit for our enterprise customers across a wide range of industries who are looking for ways to increase business productivity and offer greater flexibility,” said Michael Antieri, President, Advanced Enterprise Mobility Solutions, AT&T Business Solutions. “This new offer further strengthens AT&T’s commitment to provide businesses with the tools they need to accelerate mobility-led productivity.”

Consider that from day one, the iPad has made prominent appearances at technology events. It really started at this spring’s Citrix Synergy event in San Francisco, where the whiz-bang demo of the day was Citrx’s Receiver app for the iPad, which allows users to run their virtual desktop on the device. That event took place before the iPad launched in Canada and back at a time when the device was still in short supply in the U.S. In fact, the biggest rumour mill at the event was the iPad shipment status at the Apple Store just a few minutes’ walk from the Moscone Center in San Fran.

From there, the device has only appeared more frequently at technology events. At the recent N-able Partner Summit, the device was nearly ubiquitous. And at last week’s Avnet IBM Summit, there were a number of attendees – particularly Avnet executives – toting the tablets.

Are your customers asking for ways to fit the iPad into their business? Buzz back in the comments below and let us know.