My two year-old son has concluded that all of daddy's work-related computers exist for the sole purpose of "playing movies," a scenario I've likely created as we'll often watch something interesting on YouTube when he visits my home office. Aside from staples like Cookie Monster and the Duck Song, he increasingly enjoys videos of anything and everything mechanical, with airplanes, trains, and trucks a frequent request. Recently, he's been on a robot kick, and we'll watch everything from robotic soccer matches to some of the amazing LEGO Mindstorm creations: robots built with the ubiquitous plastic blocks, gears, motors, and often smartphones or tablets.
I'm no expert on LEGO technology, but I'm always amazed when I see a commodity smartphone connected to what's billed as a child's toy solving some impressive computing problems. There are everything from robots that solve the Rubic's Cube puzzle in a matter of seconds to robots that act as 3D printers, building other components out of LEGO pieces, all with a smartphone or tablet providing visual input via its camera and computing horsepower.
While it's unlikely we'll be replacing industrial robots with LEGO and smartphones, in an era of commodity tablets with plentiful downloadable applications, it's easy to forget that tablets and smartphones are the ultimate portable "brain." These devices contain processing horsepower and connectivity that was unimaginable a decade ago, and it's available at shockingly cheap prices.
Another of my son's favorite videos features a father and son launching a toy into space via a weather balloon. A carefully packaged smartphone captures video and telemetry data as the balloon climbs 14 miles above the Earth and then "phones home" with tracking data upon reentry, allowing the little boy to be reunited with his space-traveling toy. While weather balloons are decades-old technology, a lightweight smartphone packs computing, tracking, and connectivity muscle that would be the envy of the Apollo program that sent men to the moon.
What does this mean for the enterprise?
For IT leaders, solving puzzles and sending toys into space are probably not priorities, but there are certainly computing problems that could benefit from a small, connected computing device. We've all seen video kiosks in corporate lobbies, doing everything from displaying outdated events to providing interactive corporate directories, usually based on expensive "enterprise" hardware or jury-rigged desktop technology. Throw a tablet and an HDMI cable at the problem, and you can rapidly deploy a fleet of connected informational displays, which can be managed and updated via local Wi-Fi or even through cellular networks at events and remote locations.
Tablets are generally designed for connected and disconnected operations, so with a little creativity and perhaps some harkening back to the pre-Internet days, you can rapidly build applications that pull down data for a remote field operation, get updated while disconnected, then synchronize everything upon return to "civilization." This might be as simple as leveraging included email clients to facilitate field sales or operations activities in remote parts of the world, ranging from oilfields to railroad tracks. Third-party companies are even manufacturing cases for the iPad that can stand up to the rigors of preschoolers. With a "childproof" case and commodity pricing, commodity consumer tablets are quickly becoming sensible replacements for proprietary "industrial" computers that cost 3-4 times more.
While most of the early exploratory tablet efforts target mobile and knowledge workers, plus the executive suite, don't be afraid to look for operations areas where a cheap, portable, connected "brain" is the right solution for a computing problem. These roles might be anywhere from an assembly line, to an offshore vessel, to an office lobby.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.