Tablet computers are everywhere. Unquestionably, a tablet revolution is occurring in the Channel, and the solution providers that have embraced the technology are banking on significant big business opportunities in the SMB market.
“For us to turn our backs on the tablet revolution would be short-sighted at best and downright foolish at worst given what looks to be really unprecedented interest” in the technology, says Peter Dalpe, vice president of sales, Stratix Corp. (www.stratixcorp.com), a Norcross, Ga.-based systems integrator and reseller of mobility solutions and services. The fact that tablets, by virtue of their more generous real estate, fit into any mobile solution where on-the-fly access to applications and information is required only ups the ante, the executive asserts.
Dean Reverman, global marketing manager, BlueStar (www.bluestarinc.com), agrees, adding that the introduction of tablets into the Channel is changing and facilitating the way in which VARs traditionally integrate solutions for mobile applications. “Almost everyone in the workforce has seen or owns a tablet, which shortens and often eliminates the usual training that would accompany standard handheld device development,” Reverman observes. “Most manufacturers have designed tablets to address a variety of vertical markets, and many ISVs are following suit” by devising applications for “multiple software platforms, like Windows Mobile, Windows CE.Net, HTML5 and Android.”
Key vertical segments into which tablet solutions readily fit, and in which rapid deployment of tablet applications is either occurring or on the drawing board, include:
Retail. “Even those retailers that plan to reduce their overall IT spend are becoming serious about tablets, in large part because of the enhanced real estate and functionality” not afforded by such devices as smartphones, states Greg Buzek, founder and president, IHL Consulting Group (www.ihlservices.com).
Buzek cites findings from the recently released Ninth Annual RIS Store Systems Study, conducted by VSR sister publication RIS News in conjunction with his company. The study indicates that while most POS devices show sluggish growth in participants’ forward-looking investment plans, tablets are the exception to the rule. Fifty-two percent of study participants cited plans to purchase tablets within the next 12 months—far more than the 34 percent of respondents who noted the same intentions in 2010. An additional 25 percent of retailers queried reported that they will buy tablets in 2013.
In many cases, retail applications for tablets center on line-busting, but some merchants are going or will soon go beyond the box here. For instance, certain retailers are leveraging the devices’ generous real estate for the purpose of inventory control/updates and task management. Although remote insight into inventory has been available via handheld units for some time, such access typically has not been afforded in a lightweight package like an iPad, Buzek points out. Moreover, retailers are recognizing that the absence of inventory information on the sales floor can be a deal-breaker if the customer has access, via a mobile device, to inventory visibility at competing establishments.
Sophisticated versions of guided selling applications are also being built around tablets. Notably, under terms of an agreement with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, J.C. Penney will, starting in 2013, implement a store-within-a-store concept in approximately 1,100 locations. Dedicated, tablet-wielding “Martha Stewart Experts” will use their devices to assist shoppers in selecting home and lifestyle merchandise designed by Stewart and her team. Consumers will be able to upload photos to a J.C. Penney loyalty card Web site. Experts will then download the images to and manipulate them on their own tablets to show customers how various items may look in the room when combined with existing décor and decorative elements.
Buzek foresees considerable opportunities for VARs in the design and deployment of tablet-based guided selling applications for specialty retail stores, especially those that sell apparel. He believes these merchants will employ the devices to present to customers images of virtual models
(perhaps the shoppers themselves) wearing different outfit components and accessories. At the same time, he contends, they will check inventory availability and order from other branches any desired items that are out of stock.
Electronics retailers, too, may prove to be viable targets for resellers wishing to ride the tablet wave. Greg Dixon, chief technology officer, ScanSource (www.scansource.com), describes a scenario wherein salespersons in these stores will, when discussing potential purchases with customers, use the barcode scanners on their tablets to retrieve and share pertinent product information, demonstration videos and other data from manufacturers’ websites.
Channel vendors are banking on new rugged tablets coming out at the start of 2012 as an alternative to the consumer devices currently flooding the market. These tablets are being built to survive the rigors of the retail and public sector markets.
“In order for VARs to successfully sell tablets to their customers, they’ll need to make sure they are equipping them with the right device to fit their environment and make sure it has the features that an enterprise computing solution demands,” says Sheila O’Neil, vice president, Panasonic. “As we learned with the mobile computers that came before them, deploying consumer technology in enterprise environments comes at a cost. The same can be said for deploying consumer tablets like the iPad.”
Hospitality. Ordering and pay-at-the-table now rank as the basic tablet-based solution for hospitality players. However, restaurant operators, like their retail counterparts, are taking other functions mobile with the devices as a lynchpin.
Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia, Md. represents a case in point. On any given day, the establishment serves 24 beers on tap and 250 in bottles; it also has a beer club with 800 members and holds monthly beer dinners. Working with ISV Micros Systems (www.micros.com), the gastropub implemented a solution wherein patrons can utilize one of six Apple iPads to scroll through an extensive virtual beer library to search for beer by type, country and/or color; read about the beverage in general, peruse the schedule of future beer dinners; pair beer with food and order it right from the tablet. The application is integrated with the restaurant’s POS system, allowing new beers added to the inventory to be automatically added to the iPad menu. To guard against theft, Micros programmed the devices to stop working if removed from the premises.
In a slightly different vein, Aromas Coffeehouse, in Omaha, Neb., ranks among hospitality players that utilize tablets not only to process transactions, but for remote access to detailed sales trend analytics, financial data, and inventory information. Owner Jeff Milewski says he was attracted by the low initial and ongoing cost of the application—about $1,000 for hardware and $49 per month to cover the services of ISV ShopKeep (www.shopkeep.com), which developed the solution. However, he says, the ability to bolster efficiencies by using a more functional device than a smartphone to maintain a handle on the business from anywhere figured heavily into his decision to jump on the tablet bandwagon.
“We currently have more than 50 reseller partners, and many of them have said that the flexibility of looking at detailed reports and the like with a tablet is a huge selling point with their customers,” notes ShopKeep Founder and CEO Jason Richelson.
Healthcare. Medical practices are embracing tablets as vehicles for collecting and recording patient information at the point of care; in some offices, prescriptions are input into the devices in the examination room and electronically transmitted to patients’ pharmacy of choice. Similarly, physicians’ offices and hospitals alike have started to replace traditional paper patient questionnaires and forms with digitized version presented on tablets. “Until recently,” the latter “was much more common in Asia, but is now making its way to North America, and we have a number of pilots in progress,” says Luis Llamas, director, product management, mobile computing, Motorola Solutions (www.motorolasolutions.com).
In another evolving mobile healthcare application, paramedics at the Pierce County Fire & Rescue Department in Pierce County, Wash. employ software from ESO Solutions (www.esosolutions.com), an ISV that specializes in electronic patient care software for EMS and fire departments, and F5v tablets from Motion Computing (www.motioncomputing.com), on the scene of medical emergencies and in ambulances en route to the hospital. The application permits them to enter patient information as well as capture photo documentation and import vital signs from other devices. All images and information captured on the tablets are either printed out in the EMS vehicles or electronically faxed to the hospital to facilitate patients’ transition from the medics’ care to the hospital, explains Mike Stinson, Motion Computing’s vice president of marketing.
“Tablets are also emerging as a way for physicians to pull up test results and x-rays and discuss them with patients, again right at the point of care,” observes Kirk Robinson, vice president and general manager, commercial markets division, Ingram Micro (www.ingrammicro.com). He adds that the potential for VARs to successfully promote “forms digitization” applications for tablets to end-users in the insurance and law segments is high; one of Ingram Micro’s reseller partners is currently engaged in such a project with a law firm.
Field service. Stratix has designed field sales and service solutions wherein tablets are used for the purpose of handling customer invoicing, recording inventory changes and generating new orders. Other applications involve utilizing the devices for sales presentations and accessing detailed information pertaining to the installation, monitoring or servicing of assets and equipment (ranging from appliances and cable or utility services in consumers’ homes to municipal vehicles and boxes on utility poles).
“There are few limitations in this segment,” states Gina Daniel-Lee, Stratix’ director of Eastern region sales. “A cable company could give installers tablets to guide them through the installation process and give them a tool to use to upsell subscribers on plans, while a carpet retailer might provide the devices to reps so they can show customers different options, take, and record measurements and more.”
Service businesses. A wide range of prospects in this category, from salons and spas to repair shops of all types, are growing increasingly receptive to deploying tablets as a means of bolstering day-to-day operations and customer service efficiencies and facilitating access to information that enables them to do their jobs better.
For example, one car dealership with which Stinson is acquainted has equipped its staff with tablets that feature integrated bar code readers. When customers bring in their vehicles for regular maintenance, repairs or body work, an employee immediately scans the appropriate vehicle identification number to access all records pertaining to that car or truck. Notes about the problem being experienced, damage incurred and/or tasks to be completed are entered into the device and, if applicable, a contract for a loaner car is electronically generated and signed. Based on the records, staff also make recommendations for and attempt to upsell additional services. “Since the solution was put into place, the customer satisfaction rate at that particular dealer has increased significantly,” Stinson asserts.
Fred Dengler, CEO of MIKAL Corp. (www.mikal.com), cites a similar example, that of Van Michael Salon in Atlanta, Ga. The salon runs MIKAL’s CyberPreceptionist salon management software on tablet computers to expedite the process of client check-in and check-out, as well as updates to client records, by allowing these procedures to be handled from the waiting area or at stylists’ chairs. Managers also utilize the tablets to remotely monitor the status of the front of the salon (e.g., how many clients are awaiting services or how many bookings and cancellations have been executed), and to generate silent pages to inform stylists when their clients have arrived, alert the cashier when a customer is ready to pay for services, and book future appointments.