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Apple Enterprise sending thousands of Macs into hotels, cruise ships

Apple's Enterprise Sales Group has been quietly installing thousands of iMacs, Mac minis, Mac Pros, and Xserves in hotels and cruise ships in a new push to bring the media rich experience of Apple's retail stores to the hospitality industry, where hoteliers are seeking to deliver personalized, unique experiences that will impress guests and bring them back for more.

Ten thousand Macs in front of luxury customers

In June, Fontainebleau Resorts announced plans to install 24" iMacs in all 1,400 rooms of its Miami Beach property now undergoing a $500 million renovation, as well as the 3,889 rooms of its new $2.9 billion, 63-story luxury resort in Las Vegas opening next year. The UK City Inn Group unveiled similar services for its hotels in Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, Manchester, and London, noting on its website, "you get what you should always expect: iMac computers, free wi-fi and Sky in every bedroom."

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines began installing Mac minis in its floating hotels three years ago, starting with two of its 3,600 passenger "Freedom Class" ships. That includes the "Freedom of the Seas," the world's largest passenger ship ever built. Royal Caribbean is also building an IT infrastructure from Apple's hardware on its Solstice Class ships for Celebrity Cruises, as well as two of its own new $1.24 billion Oasis Class ships, which will accommodate at least 5,400 passengers each and assume the title of the world's largest passenger ships when completed a year from now.

Those massive infrastructure deployments, involving up to 16,150 Ethernet drops per ship, a 10 gigabit network backbone, thousands of client Macs and racks of Xserves, are adopting Apple's hardware for the same reasons the luxury hotels on land are: Mac hardware and software offers a differentiating end user polish while being easy to manage.

Not a hard sell

Hotels have actually asked for Apple's help in bringing iTunes-style simplicity to their luxury accommodations. Many hoteliers are "struggling to reach the digital demographic" and "to differentiate themselves," explained Bradley Walker of Nanonation in a seminar on Macs in the hospitality industry. "You've been to the Apple Store," Walker said. "If you could recreate that in a hotel, that would be a very attractive place to stay."

Nanonation is working with Apple to bring its technology to cruise ships, casinos, convention centers, and both large and boutique hotels. The initial applications have involved digital signage and display walls, which typically provide large format, one-to-many information services. Nanonation has also begun leveraging the unique software features of Mac OS X to build interactive solutions for lobby or pool side concierge service as well.

Installations in public locations can remind a guest of a spa appointment, allow them to order drinks, or make a service or restaurant reservation. Personalized services for the iPod touch and iPhone are also in development. "We're really excited about what Apple's done with the enterprise SDK," Walker added.

Scratching the Surface

Last summer, Microsoft floated its Surface product concept as a way to deliver attention-grabbing interactive kiosk services in hotels and retail stores. Some appeared in AT&T retail stores this spring, and earlier this week, Surface installations were announced for five Sheraton hotels in the US.

However, the 30" Surface form factor (a YouTube parody of the Surface advertisement called it the "big ass table") uses an expensive combination of video projectors and scanners to deliver its kiosk services, making it too expensive (around $10,000) to install outside of a few public areas.

Apple is working to install its computers everywhere in the hospitality industry. In addition to freestanding iMacs in rooms, the smaller Mac mini is being promoted for installation in public kiosks and for use with standard flat screen televisions as a sophisticated set top box. The Mac Pro is used to drive larger display walls and digital signage, using Quartz Compositor to create programatically designed visuals that interact with feeds from external data sources and respond to input devices or music. The iPhone and iPod touch are also being used to deliver personalized customer-facing services.

Differentiated by Apple

In addition to public kiosk information services, Nanonation has also worked with Apple to develop its customizable Nanopoint software to enable hotel properties to tailor in-room virtual concierge services built around an iMac in every room. For example, the systems can provide walking directions to attractions, details on local nightlife, weather reports based on updated feeds, and offer local services such as spa appointments.

While most competing systems are based around a web browser, Nanopoint on the Mac moves away from the browser to deliver a richer media experience. Leveraging Mac OS X's graphics compositing tools, the software can present video with interactive controls and animated elements to deliver an impressive experience. Hotels typically just provide guests with a remote control to flick through cable channels and sometimes a custom video on demand service, but digital and HD TV tuners frequently take a moment to present each channel.

Apple's server technologies can support HD content with fast channel changing and an elegant presentation with video previews (below top), integrating episodic TV with video on demand as well as customized music services that remember guests' preferences and present player controls right on the screen, composited over full motion video with drop shadows and reflections. Nanonation also demonstrated Chat services between hotel guests (below bottom), such as those traveling together or attending the same convention or other event.

Macs in Hospitality

Macs in Hospitality

On page 2 of 2: Not just a pretty face; The Xserve side; Cruise control; Tools for large Mac deployments; and iPhone for the other enterprise.