The revolution keeps revolving: Barely a year after the iPad launch (and a few months past the iPad 2 and – probably – mere weeks before we all meet the iPad 3) the pace of adoption continues to startle.

Most startling for people like me (meaning people who have been digitally baked long enough to have lived through Linux vs. Microsoft, Mac vs. PC, oh heck and even Visicalc vs. Lotus 123 is just how fast the pharma industry has jumped on this particular spin on the evolutionary axis.

Already half of the top 20 pharma companies have bought into the tablet platform. And the mandate is coming all the way from the top: In a memo to employees, Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez said, “It’s clear that we need to move quickly to incorporate this kind of cutting-edge technology into the way we work.”

Catching the Wave

In contrast to all earlier waves that washed over the business landscape, pharma doesn’t appear to be following its ‘follower’ instincts – i.e., waiting to see if the platform proves out before jumping on board.

The most positive (and not at all unreasonable) interpretation of this positive change is that leadership recognized the game-changing nature of tablet technology and was determined not to be left behind. They saw a strategic advantage and applied it.

A less generous explanation is that financially oriented folks recognized this particular capital investment decision was an easy one to make. With a lightweight and cheaper field sales device, they could justify it just on what the company would save on quickly and easily updating new materials for the sales force every time a PI changed; the fact that people also happened to be falling in love with the new technology was, well, it was gravy.

Whatever the reasons, decision-makers deserve credit for fresh and clear thinking.

But now comes the tricky part: how will pharma actually use their fancy new machines?

This part of the story is much cloudier. What we have been seeing with many clients is an ongoing struggle between two desirable goals: possibility and pragmatism.

Five Easy Pieces

The iPad (which I will use like Scotch tape is used to mean transparent adhesive tape – as a branded stand-in for the category of tablet PCs) is so fundamentally different from a PC experience that it presents a wide range of possibilities that simply never existed before. When it comes to designing for a sales force, these differences can be broken into “Five Easy Pieces”:

1.      Instant Gratification – Because the tablet runs on flash memory (read: no tedious boot up from a hard drive) it’s always instantly available. Just as important, you can instantly share data with the person you are presenting to, meaning no lag in response time and no forgotten follow-ups.

2.      A Touching Experience – the iPad is digital in a new way: you actually use your digits to control it. In a sales setting, this provides remarkable potential, since you can directly manipulate the screen and create a much more involving experience. (Note: earlier tablets were also touchscreen, but in a far more limited way.)

3.      Media Fluidity – With the iPad, the lines between media types have been erased. A rep can move from an MOA animation to an interactive chart, to a KOL video without pause dramatically increasing the power of a presentation.

4.      Spatial Awareness – Unlike a traditional PC or tablet, the iPad knows where it is in three dimensions: its GPS chip identifies its location geographically, and its Accelerometer (another built-in chip designed for gaming) tells where it is in relation to gravity. That means the iPad can provide useful local information, and it can respond to movements of the device, presenting novel presentation opportunities.

5.      Shared Perspective – Because of its relatively small size and vivid screen resolution, the most effective way for a rep to use the iPad is by standing next to the HCP. That means the HCP is looking at information from the same perspective as the rep, and this helps to break down subtle but significant psychological barriers.

These are the unique capabilities of the iPad that make the device such a game-changing tool. Yet when we design iPad experiences, we often run into resistance to using the iPad with maximum effect.

The reasons for resistance are not inherently unreasonable: people want to be pragmatic with the new technology, keep costs down, and allow for re-use. All of which ‘make sense’ in the abstract.

But not in reality.

The explanation for this gets a bit technical, but in this case a detour into geek-speak makes sense.

Paradigm Lost

The pragmatic response of many pharma IT groups is to create ‘frameworks’ to guide iPad development. The frameworks often include the requirement that iPad apps be built using HTML5, rather than Apple’s own “native” mobile operating system (called iOS). Understandably, the IT groups want a platform that’s stable, and that will allow repurposing of materials on other tablet platforms (such as Google’s Android Honeycomb platform). Moreover, they are attracted by the idea that a single set of assets can be deployed across digital channels. So, for example, a piece developed as a detail aid could be quickly converted to a website asset and an iPad sales rep piece.

Here’s the problem: using a non-native framework like HTML5 generally prevents the application from accessing a number of the features that makes the iPad so unique. It’s essentially turning the iPad into not much more than a glorified web browser. Want to do something creatively memorable with the Accelerometer? Sorry, out of luck. Like to include location-based information for the sales rep? Nuh-uh. Need to take advantage of the camera(s) to do a remote conversation? No way.

Thus some framework approaches take an extraordinary platform and turns it into a very ordinary user experience – one that is not likely to differentiate your rep’s presentation from that of the competing rep who walked in the doctor’s office an hour earlier.

So how do pharma companies appropriately balance these competing ‘goods’: the desire to be pragmatic against the need to use the platform to its full potential?

The answer is both quite simple and quite radical for pharma. With the iPad, we need to think different(ly) about how we approach creative development and execution. Operating under the former paradigm, in which technology platforms evolved less rapidly, it was somewhat defensible for companies to take time to develop standards and then roll them out broadly and systematically. But mobile computing in general, and tablets in particular, are evolving too quickly for the older ways to work. Again: Three versions of the iPad platform will have been produced within two years, each with distinctly different possibilities. On the Android side, Honeycomb hit the market mere months ago, and will likely dramatically evolve even over the next six months.

So the idea that we have a stable system which can now be ‘optimized’ does not reflect technological reality. And this is not a passing phase; because with ‘the speed of change’ underlying these trends, the pace of innovation will only increase.

In an environment of hyper-evolution, the only sensible approach is one of rapid, iterative development, whether you use a framework or not. Create solutions for the iPad that take advantage of the platform’s possibilities today, and rapidly bring them to market. Then, when the platform changes, adapt. (BTW, I’m not talking about changing the content, but evolving the experience.)

The argument may be made that this approach will be more costly for pharma companies. But, in reality, the opposite it true: besides being more appropriate for the techno-ecosystem of today, it will also be cheaper, since in the world of development, shorter timelines translate into lower costs. In fact, it’s cheaper to develop several versions of a mobile app over the course of a year or two then to spend 12 months ‘perfecting’ an app platform (even if the platform didn’t enforce the limitations described above).

Naïve or Not?

I don’t want to be naïve about the degree of change this approach will require: Rapid change is not something pharma has been proven to do well, and this particular change will require a new development model to take root.

Moreover, as Craig DeLarge, Director, Healthcare Professional Relationship Marketing at Novo Nordisk points out, “iPads are less about pharma selling and marketing and more about healthcare efficiency and effectiveness. The question is how do we use them as an information and service provision channel in the HCP’s workflow, as a complement to the larger ‘web’ of resources HCPs are already using.”

While I agree with Mr. DeLarge’s larger point, I am optimistic that iPads present new and valuable possibilities to add value in the sales channel. And the fact that pharma has broken decades-long habits to embrace this new platform proves that, with the right leadership and vision, the industry can change when it must.

Bill Drummy is Founder and CEO at Heartbeat Ideas.