Dec. 16, 2009
The multitouch revolution is old news for consumer devices, but it's primed for new life in enterprise mobility.
iPhone-like interfaces for business applications can make employees more likely to embrace new software instead of fear it, reduce training costs, and increase the accuracy of data entry.
"We're starting to see it, not necessarily to the extent that Apple has introduced it, but certainly in new devices we're going to see in 2010. You have this consumerization of the enterprise going on," explains David Krebs, mobile and wireless director at VDC Research.
User-friendliness has rarely, if ever, been a top priority for mobile enterprise devices, Krebs notes. Old-style resistive touchscreens, in which a stylus is used to activate a specific point, are an exception. Now, as multitouch technology spreads beyond just the iPhone in consumer products, workers are pushing their IT departments to supply the same elegant interfaces for business tasks.
"Previously rugged computers used to be a generation or more behind the general IT curve, but they're starting to catch up," Krebs says. However, there are also a large amount of older field workers who might resist such technology, especially in smaller, smartphone-like form factors, he added. Younger workers are more likely to see how multitouch technology can help them juggle multiple data sets, because devices such as tablet computers are more general-purpose than they used to be.
Michael Cook, the IT manager for Sumner County, Tennessee's Emergency Medical Service, wants the adoption of multitouch devices to start happening soon. Cook in January of this year deployed Motion Computing's Motion F5 tablets to his 125 paramedics. The devices use traditional resistive touchscreens for applications such as a patient reporting system; that replaced Sumner County's previous method of filling in paper forms and later entering the data into desktop computers.
Despite a software transition that Cook calls "messy" -- the EMS desktop software with drop-down menus was never meant to work in a small touchscreen device -- the department is more productive than before the change. Now, patient data is often completed in an ambulance before it even reaches the hospital, he says. Motion Computing provides hardware support such as redesigned mounts to prevent recurrences of cracked screen covers, he says.
But when it comes to multitouch screens, Motion -- nor most rugged mobile vendors -- is ready to commit. "I wish they did. I can see them used for just about everything," Cook explains. "I hate the fact that we're stuck using a certain pen by a certain manufacturer that cost $35 apiece. It would be nice if I could go and use any kind of stylus or use my finger," he adds.
Change, as VDC's Krebs predicts, is at least on the industry radar. Motion in 2007 hired Michael Johnson as vice president of product development, based on his past job running desktop development at Apple -- he worked on successes such as the iMac, and flops like the Mac Mini -- so he understands what end users like and what they don't.
For Motion itself and the future of enterprise multitouch mobile devices overall, "I think we'd largely be in agreement that this is where the technology is going, and we'd expect to see that be a part of our product in the future," Johnson says. In addition to software issues such as Cook faced, another technical challenge is the science of recognizing unintentional touches, Johnson explains. A consumer using a smartphone generally wraps his free hand around the device's plastic edge, whereas a field worker using a tablet computer is likely to rest their hand on the screen.
The good news is a screen technology called projective capacitive, in which the recognition coating is underneath the screen itself. Consumer multitouch screens use a technique called surface capacitive, in which the coating is above the screen. By moving it underneath, inadvertent touches are more easily rejected. That method also makes the screens more durable, but the consequence is higher manufacturing costs.
As those costs stabilize and companies such as Motion get more experience with projective capacitive screens, they'll be well-suited for applications such as point-of-sales and various kinds of inspections, Johnson said, and enterprise customers will probably see many such products within 12 months.
"There's a lot more flexibility in the consumer space to move things over more quickly," he says. For mobile enterprise use, "Many of the benefits will be largely the same -- the intuitiveness of the interface, the ability to move objects directly."
Editor's note: Shortly after this story was published, momentum surged about Apple's own tablet device, reportedly due this spring. Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard are also said to be planning such products. What impact will the proverbial "iSlate" or "MStablet" have on enterprise tablet vendors? Will they alter their products, alter their marketing, or play down the consumer products as mere gadgets? Share your thoughts in our community forum.