CIO Bill Martin explains how the cruise line works with Apple, how it's improving on-board Internet access and how it gives new guests a clean iPad.

Chris Murphy, Editor, InformationWeek

January 22, 2013

5 Min Read

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12 Best iPhone, iPad Apps Of 2012

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Royal Caribbean cruise line changes iPads like it changes bed sheets. Really, exactly like that -- take the used iPads out of each stateroom, put a clean one in and take the old one back for cleaning.

It's one of the interesting insights I got when catching up with Royal Caribbean CIO Bill Martin. Royal Caribbean has had iPads in the suites on some of its remodeled cruise ships for the past year. The iPads let guests order room service, make reservations for events on and off the ship, watch movies from the onboard movie library, and receive customized offers for onboard spas and restaurants.

Clearing content from those iPads is critical -- who knows what pictures a guest might leave on one of them, right? I had assumed that the remote data wipe would happen over the air, or at least through a docking station in the room. However, it's difficult to access areas such as photos and notes, even using the cruise line's Airwatch mobile device management software, Martin says. IT looked into just turning the camera off, but "a person, if they know what they're doing, can turn it back on," he says.

[ Is IT really on board with BYOD? Or just bowing to pressure from users enamored of their iDevices? Learn Why Apple Is IT's Arch Frenemy. ]

Plus, Royal Caribbean wants to make sure it wipes each iPad clean. And there isn't a lot of time to get it done. When a ship pulls in, 3,000 to 6,000 people come off and the crew has nine hours or less to get it ready for the next several thousand guests.

Thus the swap-out, which the cleaning crews do as part of their "very, very well defined" process for refreshing rooms, Martin says. The "used" iPads are taken to an onshore IT office, where they're completely re-imaged. It's an efficient operation, but "it's also why long term we'll get out of the hardware business and make this an app," Martin says. That is, in the coming years most people will just get these services using an app on their own device.

Here are some other insights from Martin:

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1. Support Is Different With Apple

Apple doesn't pretend to be a conventional enterprise IT vendor, so Royal Caribbean doesn't have a lot of interaction with Apple even on a high-profile project like this one. The support Apple offers "is good, but it's relatively limited," Martin says. Instead, Apple will often suggest a third party to work with. "That's helped a lot, because they do point you to really good people who know what they're doing," he says.

2. iPads Are A Short-Term Strategy

"Our next phase is to put this on the user's device," Martin says. "So many people have these now. And we're starting to see other mobile devices come into the picture, not just Apple's."

Guests have liked the in-room iPad because it's an easy-to-use tool to help them manage cruise activities -- a "nice pane of glass that is incremental to the experience," Martin says. But what people will increasingly want is to use their own devices, be they iPads, Kindles or other popular Android tablets. So Royal Caribbean is developing a tablet app that does everything the ship-owned iPad does, on multiple devices.

3. Royal Caribbean Needs More Mobile Development Talent

Martin has been relying on outside developers for tablet apps and development. But the company is "going to have to bring some of that in house," he says, so that it doesn't have to contract outside for every project and can call a vendor's bluff when needed.

4. Tablets Change The On-Ship Bandwidth Demand

With the iPads, Martin's team needed to upgrade the on-ship network to increase the bandwidth and make wireless available everywhere on the ship. Guests can take their room iPad with them around the ship, so if they want to watch a movie on it by the pool, IT needed to make that possible.

5. Guests Will Expect To Be Connected

The iPads connect to the ship's internal network, not to the Internet. Providing Internet access is challenging on a ship because it requires a satellite connection, which is slow and expensive. Guests pay up to 75 cents a minute on most cruise lines, which Martin knows "in 2013 sounds ridiculous." He also knows that tablets and smartphones will only increase the demand for Internet access, and the next generation of guests will just expect connectivity on ship.

So Royal Caribbean is working to improve the on-ship Internet experience on two fronts. By mid-year, it expects to have bundled conventional satellite capacity so it can offer flat-rate access. Royal Caribbean will also test the new O3B satellites, which promise fiber-type speeds. "If all the other bandwidth efforts are evolutionary, this is revolutionary," Martin says. "This means no matter where you are in the world, you can be connected to extremely high-speed Internet access. That is where we want to be." Those satellites have just launched, and Martin plans to test the service on-ship as soon as this summer, on its two newest and largest cruise ships, Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas.

About the Author(s)

Chris Murphy

Editor, InformationWeek

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek and co-chair of the InformationWeek Conference. He has been covering technology leadership and CIO strategy issues for InformationWeek since 1999. Before that, he was editor of the Budapest Business Journal, a business newspaper in Hungary; and a daily newspaper reporter in Michigan, where he covered everything from crime to the car industry. Murphy studied economics and journalism at Michigan State University, has an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, and has passed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams.

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