Tablets Readied For A Real Day's Work

In factories and on battlefields, organizations are testing iPads and their imitators--and liking what they find.
On a recent visit to Waste Management, the trash hauling and recycling giant that's No. 3 on the InformationWeek 500 list this year, I met a young IT pro whose assignment was to put Android tablets through their paces. On his desk were about a dozen Android-based tablets, some of them wrapped in basic rubber cases. Could these off-the-shelf $500 devices replace the costly, custom touch screens Waste Management drivers use in their trucks, for things like directions and pickup requirements? It's experimenting to find out.

When Sean Valcamp, director of architecture for global electronics distributor Avnet, spoke about the consumerization of IT at the InformationWeek 500 Conference last month, he described how Avnet's warehouse workers are testing iPads to know which products to pull from the shelves. They've been using a stationary terminal.

Avnet's IT team has had to do some work to make the tablets enterprise tools, like disabling iTunes so Angry Birds doesn't appear on them. "What we've actually started to do is some iPad surgery," he said. For some Web content, Avnet has just blocked access with its filtering software. Is the iPad rugged enough? It won't survive a pallet dropping on it, Valcamp said, but for normal warehouse duty, it shows promise.

A manufacturing CIO I spoke with recently is piloting iPads in the company's factories. The tablet's instant-on capability and long battery life are a big draw. Employees have been able to access a range of back-end systems with it, from mainframes to AS/400s. Workers wear gloves in the factory but haven't had trouble using a stylus with the iPad.

The U.S. Army is deep into testing tabletsand is sharing what it has learned. A 10-inch tablet's too big for foot soldiers, so the Army is focusing its tests on smaller Android tablets, my colleague J. Nicholas Hoover reports. The Army's biggest challenge is information security; it's working to harden a mobile OS for classified information. But what's interesting is that the Army doesn't think tablets need a big retrofit to cut it in combat: $10 silicon skins give them "more than adequate protection," says Michael McCarthy, operations director of the Army Brigade Modernization Command's Mission Command Complex.

Motorola Solutions is coming out this quarter with its first tablet designed for enterprise use, with an Android-based, 7-inch tablet that'll sell for about $1,000. The company sees its best prospects initially in retail. In stores, it's not replacing a device salespeople have, says Sheldon Safir, director of global marketing for mobile computing; it's giving salespeople a new tool for providing information, such as showing video product demos, or ordering online if the store's out of stock. It also sees prospects in hotels and restaurants, as well as in factories, though more likely in managers' hands than line workers.' Will CIOs pay a premium for a more rugged device--and the promise of a 3-year product lifecycle, instead of the constant churn of consumer devices? Or will that compromise both the convenience and the cool of putting iPads in store workers' hands?

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Although it's not known how widespread these kind of outside-the-office tablet experiments are, they show that IT is waking up to the tablet's potential in specialized uses. One year ago, we surveyed business tech pros about the tablet's likely impact, and we heard a collective yawn. When we asked in a survey if "for select users in certain roles" a tablet would ever be their "main computer," only 7% strongly agreed and 40% strongly disagreed. Thirty-nine percent said tablets would be a "nonevent" at their company.

IT pros are right to guard against tablet madness. "What you don't want to do is say, 'Here's my tablet, the stand for my tablet, and a keyboard, and here's my pen,'" Valcamp said. "You've basically just replicated your laptop."

But IT teams can squelch the nonsense and still seize the opportunity. Durable mobility has long come at a steep premium, via ruggedized and often customized devices. Smartphones haven't cut it for many specialized roles, since their interfaces are too small. Tablets might. They still must past the test of time, of course. Is a $500 off-the-shelf tablet with a $10 case good for just a few months or two years alongside a welder or a soldier? IT teams are letting tablets punch in and find out.