Mobile Tablets in Retail? Why the iPad Won't Cut It

Retailers, especially big box and discount establishments, have adopted handheld technologies to better manage on-site tasks, such as inventory management and data collection. In fact, devices such as scanners, industrial PDAs and even laptops can be seen in many retail organizations from the warehouse to the front of the house. So what about mobile tablets?

The recent introduction of the Apple iPad has half the world buzzing about tablets. And retailers --an industry known to adopt consumer technology within the business -- are no different. So, does the iPad have realistic retail applications?

Let's break it down. A tablet like the iPad is a mobile computing device that tends to be smaller and sleeker than its laptop counterparts. Tablets are typically used in situations where a traditional laptop would be impractical or unwieldy, or where the full-scale functionality of a laptop isn't necessary. Main features for this type of a tablet include: email access, video display and Internet browsing, plus a multitude of download applications -- all of which are great for the consumer. But, in a retail business setting, the iPad has some significant limitations.

Application Limitations
The number one limitation for using the iPad in a retail business setting is that the platform supports applications designed primarily for consumer use. Although over 140,000 applications exist, the complex business applications retailers typically use within the store aren't available on iPad platform, such as pricing, inventory management, information capture, etc. In addition, the iPad runs on the iPhone OS platform, meaning that applications developed must be compatible with this platform and must be created by third-party application developers who are approved by Apple to build applications.

There's also no way to run multiple applications on an iPad. The platform limits the user to one application at a time. While future versions may support multi-tasking, right now the device doesn't have it. And, the iPad lacks a central management function for applications, meaning that enterprises with multiple iPads don't have a way to deploy a single application to multiple tablets. While this may seem like a minor inconvenience up-front, it also creates the potential for having different versions of applications on different tablets, making version control near impossible.

Like the iPhone, the iPad must be associated with a primary computer for data transfer. You can't simply plug in to the closest machine and sync up. With the sheer number of PCs in use in a retail setting, being tied to one PC can be problematic and time-consuming.

Security and Ruggedness
According to Chris Hazelton, research director for mobile and wireless technologies at The 451 Group, the iPad also lacks a central security management function. If the device gets lost or stolen, retail IT managers have no way to lock the device remotely, leaving room for serious security intrusions.

Unlike some tablets designed for everyday use in a business setting, the iPad isn't protected by a rugged exterior or scratch-proof screen. With multiple employees using the same device in the store, and the high-ticket price of some tablets, durability is important.

Retail-Specific Tools
One tablet line that has been created with retail business users in mind is the WebDT Mobile Tablet product line from DT Research. These tablets are not only designed with a rugged exterior that can hold up against daily business use, but they also support applications that are currently used in the retail sector. Unlike the iPad, WebDT has support for Microsoft Windows XP Embedded, XP Professional for Embedded Systems, and XP Professional, which allow users to run any Windows-compatible business application.

Because network security and device tracking is extremely important in the retail environment, WebDT devices also come with a remote device administration program. This allows the IT manager to remotely manage each device from the server for software upgrades or security management.

Items such as magnetic stripe card readers or barcode scanners are other features that simply won't be found on the iPad. Even with many applications for the iPad, a lot of the functions that tablets perform in a retail setting require hardware elements that don't exist on other platforms.

These retail-specific features allow configuration for a wide variety of uses, including in-store, inventory and warehouse settings. For example, WebDT barcode scanners capture data from retail merchandise and shipping labels, and process up to 500 scans per second. The card reader captures personal or financial data from any card with a magnetic stripe, such as a credit card or loyalty card, to help retailers generate more revenue with mobile devices. A simple feature such as a camera can be important when verifying shelf placements, but also doesn't exist on the iPad.

When considering a tablet format for a retail business environment, make sure to take into account all the usage factors, application needs, security and ruggedness elements that are required for the job. The iPad is a great entertainment device and has a clear niche in the consumer world. But, as a retail business tool, it just isn't a fit.
This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds