Tablets In Business: Hard Lessons From Early Adopters
From garbage trucks to cruise ships, companies are putting iPads and Android tablets to work. Here's what they're learning.
A garbage truck is an unlikely place to see a slick Samsung tablet.
Four months ago, Waste Management outfitted about 20 of its trucks with the 7-inch touch-screen devices, which it loaded with software for route and pickup instructions that it had rewritten to work with tablets. The company was testing whether it could save money and improve performance with off-the-shelf consumer tablets rather than having to use industry-specific, ruggedized devices to replace its paper-based routing process.
Then, the night before the pilot test went live, Waste Management's telecom carrier sent an update to the tablet's Gingerbread Android operating system. The change meant the on-board charging system no longer worked with the tablets, so they would run out of power while crews were on the road.
Having rallied from that setback, Waste Management now has high hopes for the project and will decide later this year whether to use tablets in its 20,000-some trucks.
Waste Management's experience is just one example of the hard lessons companies are learning as they take consumer-oriented iPad and Android tablets and put them to work in ways their makers never planned. Tablets are showing up in warehouses, hospitals, cockpits, and boardrooms. They're making sales calls and even being tested on the battlefield. The simple-headed response to the "consumerization of IT" trend is that companies embracing easy-to-use gadgets and software will make IT organizations irrelevant. But early experiences with tablets show that it still takes creative IT work to make these tools do what companies need them to do. Here's what pioneering companies are learning.
People Need Content
Salespeople are often the first to get company-issued tablets, for a few reasons: They're mobile, they're showing stuff to customers, and they need instant-on access.
But giving tablets with just email to salespeople is no better than giving them smartphones. At the very least, they're going to want to create presentations and show their customers product demos and videos on their tablets, and IT will need to help them.
Holly Hunt, a high-end furnishing company, tested iPads with its salespeople who pitch to big architecture and design firms. "We discovered we didn't have the right assets for them," says Neil Goodrich, director of business analytics and technology. Holly Hunt had lots of beautiful photographs of its designs, but the images weren't easy to render on a tablet--people had to build a PowerPoint with their laptops, and the viewing app wasn't ideal. So the company's IT department is building an app that optimizes presentations for tablet viewing, though salespeople still need to create presentations on their laptops.
Telecom provider Level 3 went further with its iPad rollout to 1,300 salespeople. It built an app that lets them create presentations entirely on their iPads, pulling in standardized content like company and product descriptions, then customizing their presentations with content unique to the would-be customer. IT also built for the device a native app that lets salespeople pull together data from various sources, including CRM data from Salesforce.com and from on-premises systems, and generate price quotes.
Blast Radius, a digital marketing firm that's done cutting-edge work with the likes of Starbucks and Nike, has built an app for a perfume maker to help its sales agents in department stores guide shoppers to a fragrance that's right for them. Now Blast Radius is trying something new during its own sales presentations: Instead of standing up and showing prospective clients PowerPoint slides, it's going to hand them iPads with presentations on them.
Face it, says Gautam Lohia, Blast Radius's executive VP for emerging tech, people are going to have smartphones in front of them while you're talking. "Instead of being distracted by their smartphones, your smartphone and email, you're distracted with our cutesy app," he says. (That iPad isn't a gift, by the way. Blast Radius will need those back.)
The key point is that content for the tablet needs to be purpose-built--for your company, the employee's specific requirement, and the tablet form.