Android tablets are getting down and dirty on factory floors, and taking a bite out of Apple iPad's dominance there, according to GE Intelligent Platforms, which provides solutions primarily for industrial environments and municipalities.
"At the tail end of last year, we started to see an increase in request for Android devices," says Mark Bernardo, general manager of the automation software business at GE Intelligent Platforms. "It's probably in the order of 80 percent Apple, 20 percent Android."
It's a significant shift considering that requests for GE Intelligent Platforms apps to run on Android tablets were nearly non-existent only a year ago. This is also happening in one of the most conservative areas of an enterprise—the factory floor—where technology platform purchasing decisions are often made by plant managers and engineers, not CIOs.
"This community tends to be relatively conservative because [technology] is running their operations, and so they need to be really sure of it," Bernardo says.
A couple of years ago, plant managers saw the potential of mobility and seriously began looking at iPads. A tablet could give floor workers information about equipment and inventory while on the go. With GPS, the iPad could pinpoint a worker's location in relation to a particular asset. The camera could deliver field images to the control center. (For more on this, check out iPad Goes to Work as Troubleshooter in the Field.)
Plant managers, who have tight control on technology spend, also eyed the iPad's cost savings. Rather than set up a costly work station on the factory floor or purchase $3,000 ruggedized laptops, managers could get an iPad for $500. If an iPad gets damaged beyond repair, they could simply buy another one and still save in the long run.
But plant managers continued to drag their heels, worried that iPads weren't secure enough in their industrial environments. "They really weren't there yet with iPads," Bernardo says.
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Then the iPad successfully made its way into other departments—namely, sales and marketing—and plant managers eventually felt the iPad was proving itself to be enterprise-hardened. And so they began to adopt tablets, with the iPad leading the charge.
"Over the last couple of years, we've been heavily involved in the transition to mobile solutions," Bernardo says. "This is the spark that enables a great deal of productivity."
But Android tablets continued to lag far behind the iPad in industrial adoption. The problem was a cultural one: Plant managers have a tradition of quality assurance and strict processes, which plays well with Apple's rigorous app-approval process and iPad's walled garden, but not so well with Android's openness.
Nevertheless, near the end of 2012, GE Intelligent Platforms started receiving lots of request for its app to work on Android tablets. And soon enough, 7-inch and 10-inch Android tablets from Samsung and others finally broke through the conservative cultural barrier and began trickling onto the factory floor. One of the drivers is that Android tablets tend to be cheaper than an iPad, which is a big deal for cost-conscious plant managers.
"When you're talking deploying hundreds of these things, the iPad gets expensive," Kyle Wiens of iFixit, a website providing free repair manuals and advice forums, told CIO.com late last year. "We've seen industrial customers prefer cheaper Android tablets over the iPad because of the cost."
Bernardo says security concerns still trip up Android, but this is changing as Android becomes more familiar in the consumer market and especially with the new workforce. (For more on this, check out CIOs Look Ahead: Millennials, Consumer Tech and the Future.)
"A lot of our most skilled manufacturing knowledge workers are exiting the workplace," Bernardo says. "They're being replaced by new workers who tend to be Digital Natives, and they're wanting to use the device that they're most comfortable with."
Right now, this is trending toward Android devices.
Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at email@example.com