Mobile devices — especially tablets and smart phones — are becoming a must-have tool for outside sales, and the move is happening with amazing speed. Electrical Wholesaling's Top 200 survey this year included a question about whether distributors were using tablet computers, and if not, whether they were considering adding them to the arsenal. Out of all respondents, 58% said they were using tablets, and another 12% were planning to add tablets in the next 12 months (see sidebar below).

Apple introduced the first iPad in April 2010. Think about that. That was 28 months ago. Since that time the way people think of computing, communicating and accessing information has changed radically. Only in the world of mobile devices could it seem like electrical distributors are slow on the uptake when they're adopting a technology that didn't even exist three years ago.

Tablet computers offer several advantages over laptops — they turn on instantly, their navigation is dead simple and intuitive, they feature better graphics, lighter weight, impressive speed in rendering images and video and longer battery life than most laptops. And we're still in the earliest generations of the technology. New tablets are getting even better graphics rendering, more power, better user interfaces. Smart phones are getting larger, clearer displays, faster connections.

Just by themselves, the tablets are a nifty tool, with thousands of applications (apps) available and in development to take advantage of the devices' built-in capabilities, such as onboard global positioning systems (GPS) for navigation, ever-improving still and video cameras, and most of all easy reading of text and graphics. All this makes tablets nearly ideal tools for sales presentations, catalogs and quick access to answers to customer questions.

Salespeople are catching on to these tools and software providers are trying to make it easy. They're hard at work developing ways for tablets to hook back to their enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, the brains that store and sort all the data electrical distributors use to do business.

This kind of customer demand is forcing ERP providers to make their systems better. It's not so much a matter of software companies playing “me too” in hopes of selling another system, in essence saying, “Hey this technology is neato, be the first on your block with a tablet-enabled whizbang!”

Talking to the software companies, one quickly gets the sense that they're on edge, that mobile devices represent a profound change that will affect their viability. They realize that failing to get mobile right could at the very least set them back significantly. For some, it could be a matter of survival.

The reasons for this don't have as much to do with the devices themselves as with the change they represent. Tablets aren't all that different from the laptops most outside salespeople have been toting around for years. In fact, they do a poorer job of some things — they don't have the on-board memory or power of a laptop (though this is bound to change), their virtual keyboards make anything involving heavy data entry and writing, even something as pedestrian as e-mail, a bit dicey. Surfing a website on a tiny smart-phone screen can be a frustrating ordeal. Yet the spread of tablet use is driving distribution software companies to improve their game. Why would a shift in the technology to a tablet or smart phone format make any difference at all?

It's not so much mobile device technology itself that matters but the systems software providers are having to develop to make critical information available to tablet-wielding warriors in the field. Expectations of information on demand have ramped up dramatically. It's also a demographic effect of the ongoing changing of the guard in the distribution industry. The generations who've grown up with computers and the Internet as a constant presence and the primary way of finding information are now the key young talent distributors are recruiting. And it's not just the youngsters. Seasoned veterans are just as likely today to have embraced and grown comfortable with technology and see it as an indispensible tool in their work as well as their private lives.