Despite the best marketing efforts of Microsoft and its partners in the wake of last fall's launch of Windows XP Tablet edition, most corporate IT departments still view the Tablet PC as a niche technology at best, a solution in search of a problem at worst.
But a growing number of small businesses are discovering that Tablet PCs can fill real needs and pay clear dividends companies like Austin, Texas-based Gram Traffic Counting and Bartec Fire Safety Systems of Burnaby BC in Canada.
The interesting thing is, once they start using Tablet PCs, small businesses typically find additional applications and benefits.
Gram started using Tablet PCs from Motion Computing earlier this year to do roadside travel surveys for its highway department customers. The firm saw an instant increase in productivity and efficiency, says president Patricia Nassour.
"It saves us at least 50 percent on the surveys," Nassour says. "We were able to reduce the number of temps we hire. It helped us be more competitive in our bids and allowed us to be more timely in delivering to our clients."
Road and highway departments hire Gram to collect data on which to base their engineering decisions when planning new roads or improvements to old ones. One of the things the firm does, along with more traditional traffic counts, is administer three- to six-minute roadside questionnaires to drivers.
Gram, a $2-million-a-year company with 16 employees, hires temporary workers to do the surveys. The temps used to do it with paper and pen. Back at the office, other temps entered the data from the paper forms. The rekeying was a place where additional errors could creep in. It was also time consuming.
Now survey workers fill in electronic forms on the Tablet PCs. Gram created the forms in Microsoft's FoxPro database program. Workers use the Tablet's plastic stylus to select answers from pull-down lists or to handwrite answers which are later converted to computer text. It means no more re-keying, and no more errors in transcribing.
The efficiencies allowed Gram to reduce the number of temps it hires to do the surveying and re-keying by half from six on average per project to three now. Reducing labor costs allowed the company to bid more competitively and still make more profit.
The more efficient process also allowed Gram to reduce the time to deliver its reports, from about 90 to 45 days. Since 90 days was the industry norm, the faster turn-around gave the firm another competitive advantage.
After Gram bought the Motion Tablet PCs to use for the surveys, it discovered it could use them in other ways too. Today it has 21 of the devices.
Clients often require the firm to create diagrams of intersections either because one doesn't exist or to show positioning of the firm's traffic counters. Gram employees used to scrawl diagrams on paper at the site, then bring them back to the office and try to convert them into slicker computer-generated diagrams.
Now they use the Tablet PCs and Microsoft's diagramming application, Visio, to create polished-looking diagrams on the spot. It doesn't allow Gram to reduce costs, but it does make employees more efficient, says the company's vice president George Nassour.
"It's saving us about an hour at each site," he says.
Management personnel also use the Tablets in meetings to take notes and at trade shows to display presentations.
The only downside, says Patricia Nassour, was the glare problem for workers conducting the roadside surveys in bright sun. The light washed out the Tablet's LCD display so it was almost impossible to read.
Gram experimented with visors and screen overlays, but in the end solved the problem by changing background and text colors to ones that would show up well despite the problems with glare and wash-out.
Bartec, headquartered near Vancouver on Canada's west coast, services fire alarm and sprinkler systems and other "life safety equipment" in apartment buildings, hospitals and offices.
The firm has 15 field service technicians who respond to service calls and carry out regular government-mandated equipment inspections for "several thousand" customers.
A few years ago, Bartec developed an electronic form for the field technicians to fill out when doing the inspections originally on standard laptop computers. It now sells this software through a subsidiary, Certinet Reporting Systems.
Last year, company president Rob Barrett "stumbled on" the new XP-based Tablet PCs.
"We'd been looking for something like this for years," he says. "We had tried with Palms, but the screens were too small you couldn't read the information."
Bartec switched to Tablet PCs earlier this year. The company is using both pure Tablets from ViewSonic and convertibles from Acer that include a keyboard that can be swiveled and folded back on the screen to create a tablet.
"Because all the electronic recording is done mostly through tick marks, [the Certinet application ported] beautifully to the tablet," Barrett says.
"Carrying the computer is also easier because it's lighter. And they can just tap the screen [with the stylus] to fill in the form."
Until it started using the Tablet PCs, Bartec had to use paper for work orders because the technicians needed to be able to get a customer signature signing off on their work when they were finished. Now they could get the signature right on the Tablet screen.
This in turn made possible even more significant improvements. Bartec now started using data-over-wireless services provided by the local incumbent telecommunications carrier Telus to communicate with technicians while they were in the field.
In the past, the technicians would bring all their work orders from the previous day into the office first thing in the morning, creating a huge traffic jam for office staff who had to review and rekey them. Now the technicians send signed work orders in over the wireless network as they complete the work.
Dispatchers can also redistribute work orders more easily. In the past, if one technician got bogged down and another had to take one or more of his orders, they'd have to meet somewhere to exchange papers.
"That was a really major problem for us," Barrett says.
Now dispatchers can rearrange schedules in a flash to respond to emergency situations by sending new work orders to the technicians over the wireless network.
Technicians can also upload completed inspection reports over the wireless network. "The average time it takes for our competitors to get a report out is three weeks," Barrett claims. "It takes us one hour."
The Tablet PCs and data-over-wireless service together have produced a saving of one to two hours per technician per day, Barrett says. He figures the technology the Tablet PCs and wireless cards from Sierra Wireless paid for itself in less than one quarter. And ongoing costs for air time are easily covered by the productivity improvements.
The company has also won new business from competitors mainly because it's more efficient and prompt, Barrett says. Although it is now looking to recruit new employees, it has been able to handle the additional workload with existing staff because of the productivity improvements.
Revenues meanwhile have increased significantly and profits are up about 10 per cent, he says.
To top it off, Barrett himself has become a Tablet PC devotee. He carries an Acer convertible model everywhere and uses it as his main PC.
At meetings or on the plane, he converts to Tablet mode and takes handwritten notes or uses it to present quotations and put on PowerPoint shows for customers. Back at the office, he uses it as a laptop.
"Can I say, I made $200 or $10,000 more because I carry the Tablet? No," Barrett says. "But I know I'm extremely efficient with it."
One thing we've noticed, people get passionate about and very attached to their Tablet PCs. And they keep finding new ways to benefit from them. That can't be bad.
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