A few years ago LAVA was approached by a customer to develop a solution for utilizing an Android tablet as a low-cost controller along with several USB peripherals. Since then a number of LAVA products have been developed which rely on a feature found in certain Samsung tablets. While assisting a number of customers with their integration issues we’ve seen a reoccurring set of issues that keep coming up. Overall these issues can be grouped into one of two categories: Physical Issues; and Commercialization Issues.
By “Physical Issues” we’re referring to the standard issues that would be anticipated any typical Kiosk/Enclosure situation. These issues usually include:
- Casing Development:
- A custom enclosure is often required to protect the Tablet from damage or theft
- Additional space is required to protect system peripherals from tampering
- Power Management:
- A Kiosk/Enclosure is a system with a finite amount of power to work with
- If the system’s peripheral requirements exceed the available power then either the peripheral will stop functioning reliably, or the Tablet will be unable to remain charged
- In addition, excessively long USB cable run, or low-grade cables (ie poor shielding with a high power loss) will also decrease the finite power available to the system
However “Commercialization Issues” tend to be unique to the Tablet market. At the end of the day a tablet is primarily geared to the consumer market and there are a number of challenges associated with commercializing a consumer product. These include:
- Firmware Revisions:
- Consumer products are constantly changing and features are usually inconsistent from one revision to the next
- Firmware revisions differ between models and even regions (i.e. features in a European build may not exist in a similar North American revision)
- It’s difficult to lock down a tablet to one specific version of firmware
- Tablet Replacement:
- Manufacturer sell tablets in the hundreds of thousands with product line changing often
- There is no guarantee that a tablet on the shelf today will be available 1-12 months from now
- For large scale rollouts that require the commitment of a specific firmware revision a contingency pool of tablets is absolutely required
- Charging/Battery Life:
- Battery charging logic within a tablet isn’t ideal for an embedded 24/7 device
- Overcharging a tablet 24/7 will cause irreversible damaged to a tablet’s battery within 1 year
- Tablet battery are often difficult to remove and replace
- If a set of non-standard function is required it may be necessary to “Root” a tablet
- “Rooting” a tablet is an awkward process when dealing with 1000s of unit, and often void the manufacturers warranty
By far the biggest issue when commercializing a consumer product is obtaining a consistent feature set across models, firmware builds, and regional variations. The feature set of a tablet sold in Europe may have many subtle differences when compared to a unit in Korea or North America. Therefore the required features must be carefully tested before committing to any large scale deployment.
Once a firmware version has been verified, it can be very difficult to lock it down a tablet. Although updates can be disabled on a tablet’s configuration menu, it does not always prevent an initial update check of a new unit. In addition, units obtained months apart may have a newer firmware installed at the factory which is impossible to reverse without downgrading the tablet.
For the average user it’s often not possible to downgrade the firmware image of a tablet. While a firmware downgrade is possible special arrangements usually need to be made with the tablet’s manufacturer and requires a set of software tools, an authorized build image and connecting each tablet to a PC via USB. This requires a great deal of manual intervention and does not lend itself to processing large numbers of tablets.
In addition, tablets have a limited life span and are difficult to repair. A current model may only be manufactured for a year or two before being replaced with a newer revision. Therefore it is important to purchase spare units to deal with field replacements before a product is discontinued.
By taking into account the above factors a commercial system can easily be developed using consumer tablets, however, the issues we’ve listed above need to be carefully considered and fully understood.