Windows 8 tablets: Putting them to use on the frontline

With tablets becoming more prevalent in businesses, some companies are taking this to the next level by introducing them to the frontline.

Before the launch of the iPad, businesses would never have considered giving tablet PCs to employees, least of all their customer-facing staff.

Now, large companies, such as BT and Emirates, are rolling out lightweight tablet devices to engineers and flight staff, respectively, so their jobs can be carried out more efficiently.

Both firms opted for Windows 8 tablets, rather than Android or iOS devices, for their frontline staff. IT Pro spoke to Peter Scott, director of end user technology at BT, and Kevin Griffiths, senior vice president of cabin crew at Emirates, to find out why.

Why the change?

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BT's Peter Scott said the company had been developing a platform for its field engineers, who carry out new installations and repairs, over the last 12 months.

"We used to use Panasonic Toughbooks running [Windows] XP, but they were slow to boot up and get connected, with poor battery life, poor connectivity and generally no longer fit for purpose," he explained.

Our PCs were slow to boot up and generally no longer fit for purpose.

The devices engineers use must allow them to carry out a range of functions in their customers' homes and in the field, such as provide information about the jobs they are going to, and measure broadband and Wi-Fi download speeds.

The testers need to connect sensors via Bluetooth for line diagnostics and all these applications use a mix of legacy and new software.

Engineers also use their devices for general tasks, whether that's checking payslips or participating in online training from home.

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Kevin Griffiths at Emirates said its situation was very similar to BT's.

Emirates uses its Knowledge Driven Inflight Service to allow flight crews to communicate with ground staff, upgrade customers as they arrive on their flight and provide feedback.

"We had an existing app and existing hardware. We started using mobile computers in 2004, with laptops aboard, then moved to using HP Compaq devices and then Lenovo," said Griffiths.

"When the iPad came out, we realised fairly quickly that the way to go was moving to tablets so staff could be more mobile and that the smaller form factor would be ideal.

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"Walking through a first class cabin with a large laptop, for example, didn't give the impression we wanted to give out. Neither was it helpful for the staff," he added.

Why Windows 8?

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As part of Microsoft's Technology Adoption Programme, BT decided against Windows 7 and opted for its successor instead.

"It offered a number of improvements over the older platform and was designed for touch, making many of the daily processes much more efficient," said Scott.

The device also needed to be fast and had to be able to connect to a VPN quickly.

"Windows 8 is a great platform for connecting back to the enterprise. Previously, we had to use our identity cards for authentication, plugging it into our laptops and then retyping authentication," Scott explained.

"This wasn't such an issue for staff like me who are based in an office, but for those in the field who are re-logging on up to ten times a day, it became quite a laborious process.

"Windows 8 tablets have virtual smartcard running off the security chip on the motherboard - it's much more efficient," he added.

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Emirates had already made the move to Windows 7, which swung its decision to adopt Windows 8 tablets.

"Windows 8 made sense because we were already using Windows 7 and the two solutions work together efficiently," Griffiths said.

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"We spent three years working out how we could deploy well in Windows. We were nervous we'd have to re-learn on a different system. With Windows 8, we realised everything we'd developed would just work."

He said the IT team was impressed by the engaging hub page, which makes all the information about the flight, passengers and availability available to view in one scrolling window.

"If you were using a traditional app, you'd have to navigate many [windows and screens] to access the same information," Griffiths added.

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