The Facility Technologist: Tablet Frenzy!

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By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the May 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

No doubt you are aware of the frenzy surrounding the iPad, and the resulting explosion of interest in tablet computers. Suddenly they are everywhere, and most manufacturers are scrambling to issue their own versions.

There are now dozens of tablets on the market, and more are coming soon. I have been besieged by facility managers (fms) asking about tablets and how they can be used in facilities, so this article is intended to be a primer on tablet usage specifically for facility management (FM) purposes.

Samsung's GRIDPad (Photo: Ashishtiwara.posterous.com)

The first thing you need to know about tablet computers is that they are NOT new. In fact, they are one of the older computer technologies to have survived several cyclical platform evolutions.

Tablet computers in their current form factor have been around for more than 20 years. That was when the GRIDPad (pictured, right), made by Samsung, debuted in 1989.

During the subsequent years, many tablet computers have come and gone, but the tablet has never been as widely known as it is today. It had been used extensively in the military and in industrial applications, but it was never widely adopted by the mainstream consumer market.

That is, of course, until Apple applied its magic to the tablet, making changes that transformed it into something more user-friendly and fun. Of course, Apple also skillfully applied its marketing force to get the “new” tablet out into the market.

Apple’s innate ability to understand what people want in computer technologies along with its amazing ergonomic engineering have advanced the tablet in several subtle but incredibly important ways. First, Apple’s iPad responds to the touch of a finger; this is actually a big step for tablets, as the majority of them used to require a stylus similar to what was used with PDAs (a term coined by Apple) like the Palm Pilot.

The stylus was considered by many to be a major drawback, since it easily got lost, and it limited the interactions users could do. Modern touch screens allow you to use multiple fingers to manipulate the screen. Apple also realized that the traditional tablet was far too large and heavy and opted for a lighter, smaller version.

Regardless of whether it is an iPad or a more traditional tablet, the form factor of the latest generation of tablets has some definite advantages. First, it can be held and used in a manner similar to a notepad, making it easy to use while standing up; something for which a laptop is notoriously unsuited. This is extremely useful for field personnel who need to work on the fly.

(Note: I have deployed tablets for field maintenance staff, who love the ability to enter data directly into a work order system as they do their jobs, rather than jot notes on paper and then enter data later into a computer.)

Another advantage of tablets is the handwriting recognition software that has been developed for them. Rather than type on a keyboard, users can enter text just by writing with the stylus, which is still the predominant method of input on Windows tablet computers. Yes, it is not perfect, and it takes a little getting used to, but once you do, it is very efficient.

Tablets can be useful in almost any scenario where people are mobile and need access to software and information. For example, I recently designed the technology systems for a new 1.1 million square foot luxury office building in Chicago, and I included tablet computers for the lobby security staff. The tablets are connected to the building’s network via a wireless link and allow the guards to: access the visitor management system, use the building’s web portal, get information on weather or traffic for visitors and tenants, and access the Internet. The tablet is the perfect form factor for the guards because, in this building, there is no guard desk; guards are very mobile and move around the lobby constantly.

But before you run out and buy tablet computers for your whole facilities team, take a deep breath and think about a few things. First, be aware of the impact that hype has on public option of products. As IT research firm Gartner describes it, there is a technology “Hype Cycle” where the initial exuberance for new technologies results in the “Peak of Inflated Expectations.” This where consumer excitement results in an unrealistic expectation of amazing new capabilities, even though the technology is still immature.

The next phase is the “Trough of Disillusionment,” where people realize that the hype was just hype and nothing more. They learn that the new technology is not going to alter the course of the universe as they know it. Case in point: remember the Segway and how all cities and buildings were going to be designed with this form of transportation in mind?

During the “Slope of Enlightenment,” people start to see the technology for what it really is. This phase is followed by the “Plateau of Productivity,” where the technology really gets put to work and achieves its greatest usefulness.

As Gartner points out, we are definitely in the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” with the tablet. Among the comments I have heard are those from one fm who wanted to replace all his computers with iPads; another said she heard that tablets responded to voice commands, so computer keyboards would now be obsolete.

The reality is that, while iPads are extremely useful, they are not really practical to replace desktop computers. They cannot run all the same software and have limited power. And as for voice recognition, the technology has improved, but it is still sketchy, and keyboards are not going anywhere anytime soon.

Like with any new technology, when evaluating tablet computers, first start from the perspective of a problem you need to solve; do not just try to find a way to justify a cool new gadget. For example, if your mobile field staff spends a lot of time updating work order information at the office, or you are frustrated by not knowing the real-time status of work, tablet computers might be a good fit…but you must always start first with a problem to solve.

There are some aspects of tablet computers that you should be aware of before you rush out and buy one. There are all kinds of practical matters when introducing new technology, including operating system incompatibilities, the ability for devices to work with enterprise antivirus and other security protocols, software availability and updates, training, and other aspects.

First and foremost, check with your IT department; they most likely have policies on what kinds of devices they will accept on their network and in their computer systems. To the fm, it may be a cool new toy, but to the IT staff, it could be a potential security breach or a technology they are not used to supporting.

The brand of tablet is a major choice, because, when new technologies are introduced, there is always a flurry of new products. However, they don’t all last. There is an inevitable shakeout, where some companies go out of business, others are bought, and the market consolidates into a much smaller number of products.

Also, remember that in order for the tablet to do all the cool things we want, it usually needs wireless connectivity. This is easy if you are in a facility with good Wi-Fi signals, but if you want connectivity out on the road, you’ll need a monthly data plan and may not always be able to get a signal.

So as with all new technologies, you have to decide whether to ride the wave and hope you don’t end up in the Trough of Disillusionment, or wait for the dust to settle and amble out into the Plateau of Productivity. Either way, tablet computers are probably going to be in your future.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through technology. 

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