Over the past two years, OTG Management, an operator of airport restaurants, has spent $10 million putting some 600 iPads in passenger waiting areas and on dining tables. This is just the beginning, too. The iPad project is taxiing for takeoff with 7,000 iPads to be deployed across four North American airports in the next 18 months.
"We're marrying a world-class dining program with the best of technology," says Albert Lee, CTO of OTG. "It's never been done in this capacity before."
OTG's iPad project is one of the biggest iPad deployments of its kind, where the iPad takes on a kiosk-like, public-facing role. Airline passengers can freely use an iPad to order food, surf the Web, check Facebook and play games. The iPad keeps track of their flights and alerts them to board, as well as changes in flight times and gates.
OTG's pioneering effort could lead to tablets being used in a new way—namely, the iPad kiosk.
"It's not like tablets and kiosks haven't been tried before, but the iPad was the first widely accepted consumer tablet that had a lot of buzz around it," Lee says. "Apple put in a very attractive package that allowed us to put our own custom applications on them."
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Clearly, Apple is helping to usher in iPad-as-kiosk era. Apple recently launched iOS 6, which included "Guided Access" for the iPad. CIOs can use the Guided Access feature to restrict iPad to a single specific app. Guided Access also allows them to disable the Home button. With Guided Access, CIOs can easily turn the iPad into a retailer kiosk or a field worker tool with a specific function.
Strictly speaking, OTG's iPads aren't traditional kiosks with a single purpose. Its iPads merely have limited functionality along with custom-made apps, such as a restaurant menu with order-taking capability. Of course, users can't download apps or adjust settings.
But it's not as easy as it sounds or looks.
As a pioneer in this space, OTG needed to learn quickly about what people wanted from an iPad kiosk. "You've got to get it right the first time," Lee says. "You have a short window to impress and engage them. If they first see it and abandon it, abandonment is usually permanent at that point."
The pilot program called for putting iPads in airport waiting areas so that people might order food from the nearby restaurant, essentially turning a 50-seat restaurant into a 200-seat restaurant. Lee won't give exact figures on the return on investment, but he does say that waiting-area iPads generate revenue where there previously was none and offset the costs of the stand-mounted iPads.
(OTG Founder and CEO Rick Blatstein told Eric Lai at Forbes, "We're seeing 15-20 percent revenue boost.")
Based on this success, OTG rolled out iPads inside restaurants.
One of the lessons learned was that industrial design matters. At first, OTG enclosed iPads in large metal boxes that were attached to fixed stands. People sitting at a table were supposed to share a single iPad. OTG began to think about adding split-check functionality to its custom restaurant menu app.
"It diminished the magic," Lee says.
OTG quickly made adjustments and now there's an iPad for every person, thus no need for split checks. The iPad can be held freely and used in either landscape or portrait orientation (although iPads have a leash to prevent theft). Meanwhile, waiters and waitresses wipe down iPad screens after every use.
A free-to-use, properly cleaned iPad sounds like a dream come true for weary travelers—but can you trust it? OTG was concerned about customer privacy, and so app developer Control Group created a custom browser that wipes all personal information as soon as the user hits the home button.
The built-in Safari browser, on the other hand, stores cookies and personal information. "It wasn't going to work for a multi-tenant environment," Lee says.
Now OTG stands on the precipice of a massive rollout: 7,000 iPads in the next 18 months. Blastein told Lai at Forbes that this figure could rise anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 in the next few years.
This will put the pressure on OTG's supply chain partner Tekserve. Already, Tekserve has streamlined deployment. The first iPads took about two weeks of prep time and two hours per table to set up. Tekserve has gotten those numbers down to 24 to 48 hours of prep time and 10 to 15 minutes per table.
OTG is spending millions buying iPads and stands, developing custom apps, streamlining deployment, and altering the way its restaurants operate—all to improve the customer experience.
"You're ordering a sandwich and a beer and playing a bunch of games while sitting in the waiting room at LaGuardia, as the technology kind of melts away," Lee says. "How cool is that?"
Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Tom at email@example.com