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Tablets bring unique strengths, handicaps to kiosk applications

The physical makeup of a kiosk is not hard to understand: Digital screen + input device + CPU + some sort of stand or mount = self-service device.

The physical makeup of a tablet is not hard to understand, either: Digital screen + input device + CPU = cool electronic doo-dad. Add some hardware — say, some sturdy stands, a shelf or wall mounts — and voila, you have a kiosk.

Or do you?

Increasingly, that will be the question put to tablet manufacturers, kiosk companies that want to stay atop the latest technologies and deployers as the low cost and high functionality of the iPad and iPad aspirants make them a potential competitor to the tried-and-true computer in a box.

A current whitepaper posted on Kiosk Marketplace cites a recent RISNews.com survey of retailers that showed 31 percent had plans to begin testing tablets in stores during 2012, while 22 percent had already begun. The same goes with health care. In 2011, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that more than 80 percent of the top hospitals in the U.S. were either "testing or piloting iPad."  

A burgeoning marketplace of tablet devices, with nearly every major electronics manufacturer creating a tablet option to compete with the standard-bearer Apple iPad, makes choosing from the pool of potential suitors a bit challenging. The question has moved from whether it is best to choose a tablet, to what tablet is the best choice.

But a closer look reveals that not all tablets hit the mark in offering a viable alternative to traditional kiosk and self-service solutions. Here are a few of the players in the tablet market and how they fare in converting to kiosks or mobile self-service devices.

The iPad

At a Glance

iPad 2:

Peripheral support

• 3.5-mm stereo headphone minijack

• Micro-SIM card tray (Wi-Fi + 3G model)

Battery

• Built-in 25-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery

• Up to 10 hours of surfing the Web on Wi-Fi, watching video or listening to music

Display

• LED-backlit glossy widescreen multitouch display with IPS technology

• 1024-by-768-pixel resolution at 132 pixels per inch

• Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating

Screen size

• 9.7-inch (diagonal)

Nexus 7:

Peripheral support

• Micro USB

• NFC through Android beam

Battery

• 4325 mAh

• 9 hours of HD video playback

• 10 hours of Web browsing

Display

• Back-lit IPS display

• Scratch-resistant Corning glass

Screen size

• 7-inch 1280x800 HD display (216 ppi)

HP Slate 2:

Peripheral support

• HDMI port

• (2) USB 2.0 ports

• Secure Digital (SD) slot

Battery

• 2-cell, 30 WHr polymer

• Up to 7 hours and 30 minutes

Display

• Capacitive multitouch screen with digitizer

• Anti-glare flushed glass display

•Anti-fingerprint coating

• Accelerometer (ST Micro)

Screen size

• 8.9-inch diagonal

The obvious leader in the tablet-to-kiosk trend is the Apple iPad, with many options created by various companies offering enclosures, stands and kiosk software designed to turn the tablet into a self-service kiosk. 

Apple's worldwide tablet market share at the end of second quarter 2012, reported by market intelligence company IDC, stood at 68 percent compared to 32 percent for Android-based tablets.

According to Mike James, a 30-year kiosk professional and developer of the Kiosk Pro App for iPad and iPad2, "iPads have changed the whole kiosk world."

James explained how in his business he has witnessed the explosive success of iPad kiosk projects.

"We have been doing this for over two years, and in the first year and a half it was early adopters doing iPad kiosks, small stores and business buying at most 10 or 20 for a project," James said. "Now we get orders for 250 to 500 at a time. They've gone in to big business."

Yet the iPad's prominent use in kiosk solutions has not been without issues. James explained how the iPad is not ideal for communicating with external devices like card readers and barcode readers and scanners, due to a lack of USB and HDMI ports.

In some cases, the iOS operating system turns retailers away from choosing an iPad.

"Although the iPad tends to dominate the conversation, some retailers are afraid of the iOS platform and don’t know how to incorporate that," said Monica Hachem from the self-service solutions team at NCR. "Some retailers have flat out told us they will never have an iPad in their enterprise."

Other performance issues exist with the iPad as well.

"First and foremost, it's not a commercial device, and it is simply not set up for heavy use," said Andrew Schrage, co-owner of the financial advice website Money Crashers. "Apps tend to freeze on the iPad. The screen will eventually stop responding after repeated use and the device will need to be reset."

Schrage cited the iPad's strictly wireless Internet connection as another downside, given how unreliable a wireless connection can be as opposed to a wired alternative. 

The Nexus 7

Although Google's Nexus 7 tablet features NFC technology and a $199 price tag, there is little else putting the device in direct competition with the iPad. 

"The 7-inch screen means it has limited uses," James said. "Perhaps it could be used for in-store advertisements, but since there isn’t a lot of touch area, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless they had a size limitation."

Even though he believes the Android operating system is more user-friendly, Schrage agrees that the Nexus 7 lacks kiosk muscle, saying that, "To date, the Google Nexus 7 tablet computer has not made much of an impact on the self-service kiosk world."

HP, Microsoft and other Windows-based tablets

For those customers who, as explained by Hachem, are uncomfortable with the iPad operating system, Windows tablets are much more attractive. And even though iPads and iPhones have a significant hold on the market, there are still those that are unfamiliar with how to use them.

"While iPads and iPhones are great and cool, there are still a lot of people who don't have them and don't know how to use them," said Jennie Johnson, part of human factors engineering at NCR. "We design for the least common denominator."

And while not as prominent in the kiosk market as the iPad, Windows-based tablets offer more flexibility, according to James.

"HP Windows tablets are for people who need peripherals beyond just the basics," James said. "They have USB ports to plug in to any printer or reader."

The 10-inch HP Slate offers a great iPad alternative for a kiosk solution, James said, with its two USB ports, HDMI port and audio out port. The Slate's ability to show two screens at once is another feature that the iPad doesn't have, he said.

NCR's Johnson made the point, however, that if a business needs a great deal of peripheral support, a tablet is not the best road to travel.

"If you need all of the other support, there are a lot of other kiosk platforms that address it in a more secure fashion," Johnson said. "Businesses have to step back and ask, 'What is the reason for the tablet? Is it the cool factor?' Because it's not going to look real cool once you rig everything up to it, whereas a kiosk with nicely integrated peripherals will have a more preferred look and more flexibility."

Microsoft's debut of the Surface line of products could offer another option for tablet-seeking kiosk developers, Schrage said, with a lower price range that could serve as a tipping point between other tablets. The upcoming launch of Windows 8 and a professional Surface tablet option based on that operating system could further the line's chance of success in the kiosk market. 

"But it is still 95 percent iPad," James said. "With HP and others, people are still testing the waters to see how it goes."

Photo provided by Sean MacEntee.

Read more about kiosk design.

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