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Windows 8.1 tablets swim -- not sink -- in hospitality industry

Big hotel and travel companies look to Windows 8.1 tablets as a platform to connect guests, customers and workers, but new deployments could pose IT problems not found in mainstream corporate settings.

Windows 8.1 tablets are creeping into hospitality and travel businesses, but their success is predicated on IT solving some of the challenges found in nontraditional offices.

During the past year, hotels and travel companies have increased their use of Windows 8.1 tablets to provide guests with more personalized services, and to help their own employees stay in touch with their loved ones.

For example, Royal Caribbean Cruises International said it will roll out 40,000 8-in. Windows 8 tablets, from Toronto-based HEXA Electronics to its own employees by October. The massive deployment lets cruise ship employees communicate with family members and friends while away from home, the company said.

Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group recently started a pilot project that places Surface Pro 3 tablets into hotel guest rooms in Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and Tokyo. The hotelier expects to eventually add about 2,000 units to its hotels.

Last year, the Sheraton Hotels & Resorts added Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 PCs in bars, restaurants and spas in select hotels. Delta Air Lines also recently supplied its staff of flight attendants with 19,000 Windows 8 phones.

Are mobile devices replacing the personal experience?

Companies that roll out mobile devices for hospitality and travel applications are looking for new ways to interact with guests, customers and employees.

"There are two sides of this," said Todd Wood, vice president of technology at Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, based in Hong Kong. "One is how we use the devices to better serve a guest and, from an internal standpoint, how do we enable devices for guests to do [follow a] self-service [model]?"

Surface Pro 3s in guest rooms use concierge and entertainment applications, and stream video to the TV using Miracast.

Windows 8 tablet use has grown in emerging industries, but analysts have said Microsoft must find new ways to encourage Windows 8.1 mobile device adoption.

"Windows 8 tablets have had little impact on consumers," said Bob O'Donnell, principal and founder of TECHnalysis Research LLC in Foster City, Calif. Tablet growth has been slowing down in consumer markets with oversaturation, but there is an opportunity for the commercial segment, he said, adding there is also room for iPad and Android devices as well.

For Mandarin Oriental, deploying the Surface Pro 3 made the device's manageability easier because of its existing Microsoft infrastructure.

Mandarin Oriental needed a custom implementation, said Florian Kriechbaumer, product development director at U.K.-based iRiS Software Systems Ltd., which customized its hospitality platform for the hotel chain.

What obstacles lay ahead?

Hotels and travel businesses are not like every corporate office, so those IT pros will face a few special challenges.

For example, privacy can be an issue. Guests staying at the Mandarin Oriental may not be inclined to give personal information to sign-on to the Surface Pro 3s despite that tablets will go through a remote wipe process once a guest checks out. Guests can try the remote wipe function before they add personal information to the tablet, said Kriechbaumer.

And not every guest or customer may be familiar with the Windows 8.1 user interface. It's a new operating system, and over time there will be more customers who know the interface from their new Windows device, according to Wood. However, there is a learning curve and the company will need to figure out how to teach guests the new interface in a short amount of time.

Another hurdle is determining whether or not the network can supports streaming video with Miracast. Networks in the Mandarin Oriental hotels can support additional wireless devices, but adding streaming video to Miracast requires extra bandwidth.

In the case of Royal Caribbean, the company said it would use satellites through its technology partner, O3b Networks, to provide the extra bandwidth needed for its deployment.

Another issue is simply how to lock down a mobile device given to a customer or guest. Guests might take a Surface Pro 3 out in public, or it might be stolen, which could compromise personal data.

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