Laptops have long been the loyal companion of field service techs everywhere. They keep field workers connected, speed up and streamline all manners of work, and they can be built to withstand rough working conditions. But as tablets have caught on with consumers, they’re also catching on with businesses, and in some cases, replacing the need for notebooks in the field. Field Technologies Online looks at the changing device landscape (subscription required).

Tablet computers are hot in the enterprise right now, with many end users in white or gray collar positions bringing their personal devices to work with them, and companies finding ways to creatively use the devices as laptop replacements. In its February 2011 report, “Tablet Demand and Disruption,” Morgan Stanley predicted tablet shipments could reach 100 million by 2012.

But tablets have had a presence in the rugged computing market for years; many utilities and cable television companies have had tablet-based applications in place in their field service operations for more than a decade already. What’s changing is that tablet technology now has a much higher profile in the executive offices, and that has led many companies to reevaluate their rugged computing platforms. Companies that traditionally have deployed rugged notebooks are giving tablets a second look.

“While the tablet form factor has been available for years, it is receiving renewed attention for its combination of an easy-to-read display and keypad-free data entry and retrieval,” says Robert Fowler, worldwide sales manager, ARMOR products, DRS Technologies. “The current crop of smartphones has made individuals more comfortable with touch screen input. As such, there is now much less resistance to tablets from the end user.”

Popular tablet computers like the iPad have increased interest in the form factor, and some users have even deployed these types of devices in field service, sales, and other applications.

“Unfortunately, consumer-oriented tablets do not offer appropriate levels of security, durability, and functionality needed for enterprise use,” says Thomas O’Connor, senior national business development manager at Panasonic Solutions.

Having found that consumer-grade tablets are insufficient, many of these end users then turn to rugged tablets. Familiarity with the tablet interface has removed what used to be the primary obstacle to adoption.

“In the past, companies were unwilling to move to tablets out of fear that the users would not adopt to an on-screen keyboard,” says Tim Hill, senior product manager at General Dynamics Itronix. “Consumer tablets have demonstrated that users who have moderate data entry requirements, an on-screen keyboard is sufficient. This opens the door for tablet solutions, both Android- and Windows-based. Equipment cost savings can be as much as 30%.”

Manufacturers are adding new features and more consumer-like interfaces to rugged tablets in response. End users, meanwhile, are replacing some notebooks with these devices or adding tablets to existing notebook deployments.

Tablets Can Replace Or Complement Notebooks

Rugged tablets are being adopted across the entire spectrum of business applications in field service, construction, home healthcare, and other markets. Large, bright screens are appealing in these environments, and the touch screen interface has caught on in sales, customer service, and mobile point of sale applications.

“Users that previously may have selected notebooks in the past increasingly are using tablets for the same – and potentially new – applications,” Fowler says. “They offer several advantages over other mobile form factors like notebooks and handheld devices, including portability and mobility, larger displays, and docking functionality. A standing worker can easily operate a tablet while holding it in one hand. Many utility and other field service personnel were among the first to recognize the advantages of a tablet versus a notebook, which requires that it be placed on a surface to use the keyboard.”

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Avatar photoField Technologies Online provides is a resource for the optimization of field workers, service and assets. The publication's goal is to provide companies in the field service, transportation/distribution, government, public works and utilities industries with information on mobile technologies that can be used to improve productivity and drive efficiency.