7-Eleven, a $31 billion Dallas-based company, is the worlds largest operator, franchiser and licenser of convenience stores. The company is in the middle of surveying 5,700 of its stores to capture floor plans and to inventory store equipment. When 7-Eleven began this project, maintenance crews used pen and paper to record equipment serial numbers and the answers to the 1,200 questions in the survey. The job could take a maintenance worker as much as 12 hours per store. In an effort to make data collection quicker and less expensive, 7-Eleven last year tried using radio headsets that allowed workers to radio the information to a colleague in a truck outside each store. Earlier this year, the company switched to a laptop-based solution, having workers fill in forms electronically. But, since maintenance workers are required to climb into small spaces to record serial numbers of gas pumps, heaters and air conditioning units, Walsh said data collection was difficult even with the laptop because a flat surface was required for workers to input data.So far, the effort has been worthwhile. Switching to Tablet-based data collection allowed 7-Eleven to reduce survey work time by 50 to 75 percent, Walsh said. Although the company has yet to commit to a full rollout of the Tablets, she said, given the time savings demonstrated so far, use of the Tablet would save the company an estimated $3 million to $5 million annually. While many enterprises are interested in Tablets mainly for vertical applications such as warehousing and merchandising, some are also eyeing the Tablet PC as a laptop replacement for increasingly mobile workers. At Best Buy Co. Inc., in Eden Prairie Minn., Dave Severson, product and capability manager, is conducting a Tablet PC pilot test with 17 corridor workers at the electronics retailers corporate headquarters. The idea is to see if the productivity of these workers could be improved using Tablet PCs. Best Buy employees are testing Acers TravelMate 100 Tablet. Severson said using a convertible Tablet was key because few employees are ready to give up keyboards. To further test the capabilities of the Tablet, Severson worked with Best Buy security managers to deploy a WLAN (wireless LAN) based on the 802.11b standard, or Wi-Fi. Severson said the productivity increases that Tablet testers saw when using the WLAN drove the corporation to budget for WLAN capabilities at the companys new corporate campus being built in Richfield, Minn. However, although the Tablet pilot has been successful thus far, Severson said he has no plans to purchase units for Best Buy until he completes a case study and business model to determine the potential return on investment for his organization. "I do think some very positive things could happen if the price of Tablets eventually becomes very close to the price of notebooks," Severson said. Best Buy isnt the only enterprise concerned about the Tablets price point, which averages about $2,200 per unit. Experts, who estimate vendors are paying $100 to $200 more to produce Tablet PCs than they spend to manufacture traditional notebooks, say this price premium will slow initial adoption. In fact, for enterprises, the final price differential between Tablet PCs and notebooks could range from $200 to $400 per unit, according to Dataquest. While IT managers said they are willing to pay more for ease of use and mobility, they are not willing to accept less processing power and a smaller screen size. Tablet PCs have smaller screens and use processors that are not on par with those of standard notebooks. Even IT managers excited about the potential of the Tablet say they will wait and watch the prices. At Aventis Pharmaceuticals Inc., Perry Rosenrot, senior director and global head of business applications and services for information services in the companys Drug Innovation and Approval group, deployed the Fujitsu Stylistic Series 4000 from Fujitsu PC Corp. in an effort to automate paper-based data collection during clinical drug trials and laboratory research. While the Tablet has the potential to save 2 hours a day per researcher in time now spent re-keying drug trial data, Rosenrot said he will need to do more analysis to determine how much of a trade-off hes willing to make between price and functionality. "The Tablet certainly has more functionality than a laptop, but I need to figure out how much the market will bear in terms of incremental price," said Rosenrot, in Bridgewater, N.J. Senior Writer Anne Chen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So Walshs team decided to try giving maintenance workers the Acer Tablets. Using Microsofts .Net Framework Software Development Kit, 7-Eleven developed an application with the help of Microsoft that ports its survey to the Tablet PC. The Acer unit is a convertible Tablet, and workers are able to rotate the screen and carry the hardware like a clipboard when filling out each survey using Ink. Afterward, the Tablets are docked to transmit information over the corporate network to a Microsoft SQL Server database. The Acer unit does not have a docking solution yet, so 7-Eleven is using a port replicator from Mobility Electronics Inc., in Scottsdale, Ariz.