• Type: Whitepaper
  • Topics: Control Systems;
  • Date: March 2015

By Dan Daley, Special to AVIXA

TabletThe history of tablet computing goes back eons. No, not to the stone tablets that Sumerians used to log grain inventories (those tended to be very much write-once, read-once propositions). Eons, in technology terms, take us all the way back to 1993 and Apple’s Newton device, followed by the Palm Pilot four years later. But not until Apple’s iPad came along in 2010, did the tablet enjoy mass appeal, and in the years that followed Apple sold more than 150 million of them, in various sizes.

In response, software developers created hundreds of thousands of apps for the platform. And in separate but related news, there emerged tablets from other manufacturers running the Android operating system – plus many, many more apps. To say nothing of so-called “phablets” — the logical outcome of smartphones getting larger and tablets getting smaller. Between the array of form factors and apps — including control apps — these handheld devices have become ubiquitous in life, whether to operate the HVAC system at home or the conference room AV at work.

And that’s part of the challenge: Tablets, smartphones or phablets might run all the apps we need to run our lives, but they come with a certain measure of consumer-electronic “gotchas,” such as operating systems that need periodic, unscheduled updates. When the same tablet that someone uses to run enterprise systems at work — from conference rooms to auditoriums — suddenly finds it’s unable to respond to commands because OS updates have rendered critical apps useless, as they say in Hollywood, mayhem ensues.

User Expectations

“Tablets and smartphones  —  the whole BYOD trend  —  have changed user expectations,” says Howard Nunes, President and CEO of PepperDash Technology Corp., a 40-person national provider of control programming software and services. “Users now expect a lush GUI experience to the point that when they encounter a typical touchpanel, they may be disappointed.”

Nunes believes that handheld devices and their attendant apps have created an expectation gap between their consumer applications and their possible enterprise missions. Such blurring of the lines between personal and professional applications, Nunes says, impacts pro AV manufacturers that must increasingly migrate their control functionality to what are essentially consumer products. Part of the challenge is that software and updates for professional AV products have typically been developed on a longer, methodical timeline. The same development timeline for consumer electronics, Nunes says, “Is enormously compressed.” This disparity can cause chaos when a consumer device is used to control a dedicated professional system, he explains.

“Many of our clients who have asked us to program iPads as their primary control device eventually backed off once they realized that the cost of maintaining the iPad would be far more — in the long run — than maintaining a Crestron or AMX touchscreen, because of issues like software updates,” Nunes says.

Manufacturers Feeling It

Crestron, AMX and other control system manufacturers have developed apps for personal mobile devices. And given the ubiquity of those devices, customers are likely to ask for all their AV controls in their hands. Steve Greenblatt, President of control system solutions provider Control Concepts in Fairlawn, N.J., says that meeting those requests must be accompanied by warnings to customers about the potential pitfalls of sudden platform changes by electronics manufacturers.

“When our customers ask for this — and they do — we will do it,” Greenblatt says. “But we’ll also try to give them a realistic assessment of what the challenges they might encounter as a result may be.”

For example, Greenblatt explains, end users may not always know if their devices’ operating system has been updated, because in many cases those devices are set to auto-update. Similarly, they may not know that certain apps require an update, or even whether the software running on a piece of AV equipment they’re trying to control needs its own upgrade (or if they know, that the upgrade failed). “You certainly don’t want to discover any of that while you’re using an iPad to control an AV presentation to a client,” Greenblatt says. “At the very least, we suggest that they set up a web page as a back-up solution.”

Commercial control system users may be forgiven for thinking their iPads and Android tablets can be used interchangeably with the dedicated touchpanels sold by control system manufacturers. Both platforms are handheld, often wireless and feature full-color touchscreens. And the cost difference between an app and a purpose-built touchpanel has certainly led many to want to use their consumer devices for control both at home and in the enterprise.

Fortunately, the choice of tablet over touchpanel hasn’t become the no-brainer decision that it seems on the surface. What had initially been disconcerting to control-system companies has ultimately proven a benefit, namely that economies of scale — driven by the popularity of consumer tablets — have pushed down the cost of certain components for everyone. Meaning the decision to forego a commercial control panel doesn’t come down to price anymore.

Tom Barnett, Director of Marketing at Crestron, says that market dynamics have, for example, brought down the cost a Crestron 7-inch touchscreen controller to about $1,500, from close to $5,000 just a few years earlier. Certainly, such a drastic a price drop has implications for AV integrator margins, but Barnett points out that a dedicated, enterprise-designed touchpanel still offers more margin flexibility than an iPad sold in an Apple store.

Pressure from consumer devices has also propelled the development of bridge apps, which commercial control system developers can leverage for other pro AV systems. Barnett points to Crestron’s AirMedia wireless presentation system, which includes an app that lets users transmit PowerPoint, Word, Excel and PDF documents from iOS and Android devices to Crestron-controlled commercial room displays.

“There is a level at which consumer and enterprise-level devices can coexist,” he says.

The Future: Fewer Tablets but More Devices

All that said, tablet sales have apparently hit a wall. Total Q4 2014 worldwide shipments of the category (which now includes hybrid laptop/tablet devices, such as the Microsoft Surface) came in at 76.1 million units, down from 78.6 million a year earlier, according to tech research firm IDC. That was the first time tablet shipments have declined since the iPad ignited the market in 2010. IDC also cut its forecast on future tablet shipments.

But that doesn’t mean customers are losing their appetite for controlling things from the device in their hands. If Apple’s record Q4 2014 sales of big-screen iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus smartphones is a sign of anything, it’s that demand seems to be shifting toward larger smartphones and phablets.

If there’s a downside to putting AV systems control onto consumer devices, it’s that if functionality fails, customers probably won’t be calling Apple or Google to complain. They may not even call Crestron or AMX. Integrators and consultants will be on the front lines. In AV pros’ efforts to fulfill clients’ requests for control system interfaces on mobile devices, the “expectations” button may be the most important element of the design. And in the end, ironically, limiting control systems access from consumer devices may actually give clients the best possible control experience.