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The purpose of a purpose built device

Stop using tablets as room displays

Privately I am a big fan of tablets. As a mobile generic purpose device tablets are great. They can act as a portable entertainment center and you can use them as a lightweight productivity booster when on the run.

At first glance tablets may seem like a good platform for room displays solutions. The low cost and ecosystem of applications provides a quick route to market for many software solutions aimed at the professional market. They also come with built-in integrations to many calendar systems and provide convenient over the air update capabilities. And in recent years following the BYOD-trend modern versions even come with capable enterprise mobile management solutions.

But in this article, I will argue, and hopefully convince you, why it makes both financial and environmentally sense to go for a purpose-built solution instead of using a tablet for your room displays. As a manufacturer of our own custom purpose-built hardware for room displays I'm obviously biased, but it doesn't mean I am wrong.

I've been working in the niche of smart workplaces since 2007 and have still not seen or heard of any successful large-scale examples of deploying tablets as room displays.

I argue that this is because the lower purchase price comes with several hidden costs that are not as obvious and easily calculated as the purchase price.

Product fit

Even if tablets can be used in a professional setting they are mobile, battery powered, handheld devices to be used a few hours per day to browse the web, play games or watch videos. Not exactly the definition of a room display that requires fixed installation, constantly powered running 16 hours a day on a single application.

To make a tablet work you also need Power over Ethernet adapters, a case that can secure the tablet to the wall, USB-cables and software.

It does work - for a while. But after some time batteries start to swell since the tablet was not built to be running on constant power. The display goes dark since active 16 hours hours per day is way above the 2-3 hours per day it was designed for - or any other component gives up since they have been selected to minimize cost and not to maximize lifetime. Warranty is typically just one year and even under normal use it is not expected to last more than 2-3 years.

Product life cycles for consumer tablets are typically 12 months or less. So when you eventually need to replace a device you may not be able to find the same model, and in some situations you will also need to change the casing, adapters and cables.

A generic platform provides a lot of functions and flexibility, but it also provides a lot of options for a malicious user if that user is able to bypass the security measures in place. Major platforms like Android and IOS have many benefits, but they are also an attractive target for hackers as there are hundreds of millions of devices on the market.

Even if the mobile OS developers have added a lot of great features to make their systems compliant with Enterprise security requirements they are still depending heavily on vendor support. Due to the short life cycle of consumer tablets updates beyond the first year or two may not be that frequent (if any).

Regarding security in general, the most important thing I have learned over the last decade working with banks, insurance companies, defence contractors and governments is that there is no such thing as a “secure system. Ciphers and tools that were seen as secure yesterday may not be that tomorrow – and the more diverse the fleet of equipment is the more complicated it can be to keep secure over time.

But it is so cheap!

Since a purpose built room panel may cost 3-4 times more than a decent consumer tablet you could possibly have a lower direct hardware cost even if you have to replace the tablets a few times. But what about the other costs related to an installation of room displays.

Installation and replacement costs

When you first install a room display system it is a planned event with dedicated resources on site for the time it will take to install all the unts. In the case of a device breaking down it is an unplanned event. Unplanned replacements are often several times more expensive since you cannot coordinate the activities as you cannot know which devices that will break when.

Sometimes mechanical changes in tablet generation shifts will also require new casing and adapters - adding to both direct cost and the time to make the replacement.

Imagine this scenario in your own organization. Even with just a handful of rooms it is easy to see how every room installed would need replacement each 18-24 months. In a scenario with five hundred rooms installed in different phases over 18 months a tablet breaks every fifth day. Since it is not possible to know which will break, the option is to either continuously repair and replace broken units or systematically replace all units at fixed intervals before they break.

Your IT department also needs to spend time configuring these generic purpose devices to work within the company network in a secure way. Even if you have processes in place to enrol generic computing devices like company phones and computers this adds to the overall costs and effort. In particular since has to be done repeatedly for products with a short lifespan.

It is not unusual with company policies that require that replaced tablets have to be sent for destruction or scrubbing - so they have an additional cost to dispose of the product in a secure and environmentally safe way.

Sustainability

More and more companies are considering the sustainability of their operations, and much the hidden cost for “cheap” electronics is paid by the environment. The single most important sustainability factor for the typical electronic device is its longevity. About 85% of the lifetime carbon emissions of a tablet comes from its production and 60% of all e-waste is not recycled – and almost a third of the e-waste that gets recycled cannot be recovered.

In other words the carbon footprint of the cheap tablet will be 3-4 times higher than a high quality purpose built device.

End user value

I assume the purpose of investing in room displays is not to have a gadget hanging on the wall. The reason to consider a room display in the first place is to make the employees more productive and satisfied and at the same time optimize the use of your available office space.

Just consider a company that has 2 000 devices that were rolled out over one year and the mean time between failure is 18 months. That customer will eventually have over 100 breakdowns per month on average. Even if you have a great service team that fixes it within the hour, the end user “trust” in the system will be severely damaged. I know from experience how sensitive system acceptance can be on user level. Even if the problem has been on network level or on a calendar system  - the room displays are what is visible to the users and from their perspective it is the “room booking system” and the “displays” that don’t work and they lose confidence in the system and it takes time and effort to rebuild.

It is common that larger organizations start with 50-100 rooms as a pilot and then continue with a global roll out of thousands of rooms that takes several years. I was involved in a project with a fortune 500 company back in 2011 that was rolling out a purpose built solution for their room displays and they continued to roll out the same solution until last year when they changed to a new generation after 8 years.

A consumer tablet based solution would have gone through 3-4 “generations” in this time frame and the ones deployed first would likely have been replaced 2-3 times.

I believe that this uncertainty in itself is a big blocker for enterprise customers to go with products that have short product cycles.

Even among purpose-built devices there are also different tiers of products, and just because it is purpose built does not mean it is high quality or long life.

There are basically three segments of hardware

  • Premium: 1 500 – 2 200 USD with 24-60 months warranty and product cycles of 5-10 years
  • Middle: 700-1200 USD with 12-24 months warranty and product cycles of 2-5 years
  • Low: <500 USD, 12 months warranty and product cycles of 1-2 years

In essence, you get what you pay for. A lower cost device is made of lower cost components and changes specification more often – similar to consumer products. Industrial grade components are often 5-10 times as costly as consumer grade components as their availability is guaranteed for 5-10 years and use higher quality materials.

As I said earlier, I as a manufacturer of our own custom purpose-built hardware for room displays, is biased. But I still hope that you now are convinced that a purpose-built solution is the best choice and I will spend the last part telling you more about our solutions.

Up front cost is an important and relevant decision factor, but the Return on Investment (ROI) is more important. The business case differs from customer to customer, but in most cases the solution breaks even in 3-6 months at 1700 USD. A <1 000 USD solution can reach a ROI slightly faster, but it’s not necessarily such a significant difference in the bigger picture. At the higher price point the customer gets a solution with significantly less hassle/disruptions, that is far better for the environment and looks better.

We even put our business model behind our claims and offer customers to buy our product as a service. For 500 USD per device a customer is up and running for a year. This ensures a close to immediate ROI given the 30-day credit we give. After the standard 3-year contract the customer will have paid even less than the MSRP and can opt to extend at half the yearly price! In addition, we manage the reuse and recycling of the product when a product is at the end of its lifecycle.

• We position ourselves as a premium brand that focus exclusively on the enterprise market. With a competitive MSRP in the premium group and with our “Hardware as a Service” offering we are competitive from an OPEX perspective even when compared with middle and low tier competitors.

• We offer a future proof solution and in addition to providing open API:s we work proactively with solution partners and integrators. In this way we are able to build deep integrations that generate additional value to existing infrastructure and the solution investments the customer has made or is planning to make. We already have the widest backend support on the market.

• Our focus is on controlling the entire user journey with a research driven development and design process where every design and development choice serves a purpose. The UI/UX must be intuitive enough for users of any age and touch screen proficiency.

• The design is timeless and adds to the aesthetic value at any office – today and in the next 5-10 years. Our customers invest a lot in their workspace experience to attract and retain talent.

• We separate ourselves from most of our competitors by being able to ship and support our products globally to meet the requirements of our international enterprise customers. As part of being a truly global supplier we also have the widest language support for our products.

• With our direct production control we can provide pre-configured devices for customer specific needs and even meet customer specific hardware requirements like hardware disabled radio (Wi-Fi/Bluetooth) and I/O (USB).

• We have a real sustainability focus on maximizing longevity of our products and when they reach the end of their long life, we take care of the reuse/recycling as part of our Hardware as a Service offering.

The above points highlight how we are different from our competitors. However, we do not believe that there is a “one shoe fit all” solution on the market. That is why we take the open approach and happily integrate with solutions from our competitors if that is what our customers want. We recently worked with a bank that selected our premium products for their customer facing meeting rooms and went with a lower tier solution for the internal meeting rooms.

The different tiers exist because different customers want different solutions - but please, don’t use a tablet!