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There are now three hardware platforms for personal business computing: PCs, smartphones, and tablets. The tablet's still a newcomer, but the iPad's popularity kicked off a wave of experiments in companies to learn where tablets can make employees more efficient or customers happier. Many IT shops are in the test-and-learn phase, with a dozen iPads here or a handful of Android tablets there. "CIOs are playing dodgeball when it comes to the use of tablets," says Kevin Hart, CEO of Tekserve, an Apple reseller. "The requests for these are coming from all over."
One use for tablets is for companies to put them in the hands of their customers, which is what Royal Caribbean is doing on its most recently remodeled cruise ship. Here we're not talking about creating a tablet app for customers, but actually giving them a device to use. A related customer use is encouraging tablet use while they're at your venue, whether it's a resort, baseball game, restaurant, or retail store.
Royal Caribbean this month will put iPads in every stateroom of its revitalized Splendour of the Seas cruise ship. Guests can check daily activities on the ship, book shore excursions, and receive personalized promotions from Royal Caribbean, based on analytics the company runs in real time during a cruise. Royal Caribbean has used interactive TVs to provide that kind of information, but iPads are a more intuitive and enjoyable way for guests to receive it, says CIO Bill Martin.
Giving tablets to customers (or encouraging their use) will be a difficult decision for many companies--do they enhance the experience, or distract from it? Some restaurants are experimenting with tablets in place of menus. That could come off as exciting and new--or tacky and out of place, depending on the venue. Even the question of whether to encourage customers to use their own iPads stirs debate. Sports stadiums are divided on whether to allow customers to bring tablets to a game--baseball's New York Yankees stadium bans them, while the San Francisco Giants' AT&T Park provides free Wi-Fi. Giving customers a tablet, or encouraging their use, is a high-stakes call for companies.
2012 is the year companies will make big go or no-go decisions about these tablet pilot tests, to decide if a device designed for the consumer will work in businesses. Early adopters already are deploying tablets by the hundreds to sales teams. Waste Management hopes to decide this year if Android tablets are practical for use in the cabs of its 20,000-some garbage trucks.
What follows is a look at ways early adopters are putting tablets to use. (See our coverage of what tablet early adopters are learning.) This isn't about various iPad apps, nor is it about general purpose productivity, like checking email and documents. This is about putting tablets in the hands of employees and customers for specific purposes, and deciding where that makes business sense and where it doesn't, from sales to warehouses to boardrooms.
The traditional way to prepare members of a board of directors for a meeting is to FedEx an inches-thick book of material to them. With tablets, more boards are receptive to getting that information electronically. BoardVantage has offered digital board books via a Web portal since 2003, but not until it provided an iPad app in 2011 did sales take off. The app lets directors read offline and make notes; the downloaded material is in an encrypted file, which is synced to the server with any notes once reconnected. If the company changes or updates the material, those modifications can be made online rather than having to mail out new material. Competing products include Directors Desk from Nasdaq, Boardbooks from Diligent, and BoardLink from Thomson Reuters.
There has been a divide among many boards, where some directors wanted digital and some insisted on paper. The iPad helped bridge that divide, says BoardVantage CEO Joe Ruck. It wasn't a simple transition, though, Ruck says. The iPad's graphics are tremendous, but it also has a small screen that doesn't allow the kind of multitasking on multiple windows that a PC does. So it took a major rewrite to rethink the portal for an iPad. Now, BoardVantage is seeing buyers ranging from Fortune 500 companies to local school boards. Ruck says in hindsight it's obvious that a boardroom app would be popular, but "it was a surprise to us to see [iPad adoption] move so quickly."
A number of companies are experimenting with tablets in warehouses. Avent, a global electronics distributor, is doing a small-scale trial of iPads in one of its distribution centers. Employees use them in areas that are too far from a kiosk to easily record data on items they need to pick up, and also in areas that are harder to access. Avnet's testing strategy is to invest carefully, and not assume the tablet will be a big productivity win. So, Avnet hasn't put a lot of bells and whistles on its warehouse app yet. For example, workers can use a bar code scanning app, using the iPad's camera, to collect data on an item they pick. But that app isn't integrated with the back-end system, so the employee must key it in using a kiosk.
Sean Valcamp, Avnet's director of IT architecture, wants to make sure the app is working in this environment before it invests too heavily. So far, the durability is holding up well, and the battery life has been impressive. Avnet did "iPad surgery," Valcamp says, to disable features warehouse workers didn't need, like Bluetooth and iTunes access. With that, Avnet has gotten as much as three days of use on a single charge.
The telecom company Level 3 has given iPads to 1,300 salespeople. Several medical device companies are trying them to help quickly pitch doctors on their products. SAP has deployed more than 10,000 iPads to employees, including to salespeople. Tablets are a more natural device to have a one-on-one conversation around than a laptop.
One critical lesson from early adopters is that salespeople need different content when they start using tablets. Mobiquity, a mobile app developer, worked with a company that tried to provide broadcast-ready videos for use by salespeople, not considering the cost and time that would take to download, says Mobiquity president Scott Snyder. Level 3 and high-end furniture maker Holly Hunt each found that, when they gave salespeople tablets, they needed to make it easier for them to create tablet-friendly sales presentations. Templates of tablet-ready presentations--ones that a salesperson can customize with the would-be client's information and assets like product photos--are one option. Some companies still require a laptop to build those kinds of presentations, while others have built apps so salespeople can do that from a tablet.
Tablets haven't been a big hit in retail stores, says Gautam Lohia, head of emerging technology for the digital marketing agency Blast Radius, since they're a two-handed device. That makes it awkward to do things like pick clothes off a rack to suggest to a customer while holding on to a tablet. In those cases, it's better to have a kiosk if there is a need to look for more information or find an out-of-stock item online at another store.
However, Stoli vodka gave iPads to people doing promotions in bars, says Jamie Manalio, a producer at Rust who worked on the app. The app played off Stoli's "Would you have a drink with you?" ad campaign. The people doing promotions used the app to ask the customer a few questions, shook the device, and the app suggested a vodka drink to fit their personality. Likewise Blast Radius worked with a perfume maker on a tablet app that asked a number of questions to direct a person toward a scent. Tekserve did something similar for a cosmetics maker.
Cash register interfaces also could be a growing use for tablets, says Lars Kamp, of Accenture, replacing conventional, costly point-of-sale terminals, especially for small businesses.
The big question is whether a tablet gets in the way of a retail experience, rather than enhancing it. Manalio worked with a retail shop owner who wanted a virtual reality app, where people could point an iPad camera at a product and get more data on it. He talked the store owner out of it because he thought people would be looking at their devices and "walking by products you want them to buy," he says.
Waste Management is testing Android-based tablets in a handful of garbage trucks, trying to learn whether they'll be durable and practical for such duty. Today, route information is largely conveyed via paper, augmented by radios or push-to-talk phones in the trucks. The alternative to a consumer tablet is a ruggedized, Windows-based tablet, which Waste Management also is testing. Already, the company has seen that tablets require far less training time; drivers find the touchscreen interface intuitive, so they're ready to use the system in less than an hour. The device also uses Google Maps for directions, rather than a costly and customized mapping program.
Tablets could be appealing to other field staff such as repair technicians who need appointment information and may also need to access information such as diagrams and instructions for repairs. One big challenge with that is durability, as our next slide shows.
In harsh, outdoor environments, conventional ruggedized tablets still hold their own over consumer tablets like iPads. iPads don't do water. Conventional ruggedized tablets are generally Windows based and use a stylus, though manufacturers are starting to deliver rugged touchscreens based on Android. Advantages over an iPad include screen durability, the ability to view the screen in sunlight, and batteries or hard drives that can be replaced, says Doug Petteway, marketing VP of GD-Itronix, a General Dynamics subsidiary that makes rugged tablets.
Rugged tablets can be built to withstand a soaking from a firehose or a drop on a concrete floor. They can be made to not emit any sparks so they can be used around oil and gas. But they also cost about $2,000 to $4,000 each. Motorola Solutions has a semi-rugged, Android-based enterprise touchscreen device for around $1,000 that aims to bridge the gap between conventional rugged, Windows-based tablets and consumer tablets.
Anything that's traditionally been paper based is a candidate for replacement by tablet, says Joel Evans, of Mobiquity. Alaska Airlines was among the first airline to replace the large, paper books pilots carry with them for flight and weather information. Restaurants have tried replacing paper menus with tablets, or used them as a kiosk for self-serve ordering.
Merely replacing paper is the simple first step. The next step companies need to take is changing the content to add interactivity, click-through analysis, and links to more information. Is the tablet a gimmick, or a better venue that offers something more than paper? "We're starting to rethink content and displays around tablets," Evans says.
Video is an underexploited element of tablets today that's likely to grow. Furniture seller Holly Hunt uses iPads in warehouses, where staff can take a quick video of an incoming product--$150-a-yard silk, for example--that looks of suspect quality, and email the images to the purchasing agent to check if they should accept it.
This kind of informal video use--whether recordings or impromptu video chats--will grow as more people experiment with tablets. So will the use of video in sales, since tablets make it much easier for someone to call up a 30-second video from the device and hand the tablet to the prospect to watch it. Snyder of Mobiquity predicts tablets will "unleash a video monster."
There's a big limitation today with how long it takes to upload video, given the huge file size of video, says Lohia, of Blast Radius. But the tablet is "a great vehicle for taking video," says Lohia, and he thinks companies will find creative new uses as they work around those limits.