Several hotels are distributing iPads and similar devices to customers in an effort to tap the buzz surrounding tablet computers. According to reporting from USAToday, the effort is the latest by the travel industry to digitize a range of services that once required picking up the phone.

Using third-party software developers, hotels are introducing apps to order food, browse hotel amenities and local attractions, request wake-up calls, schedule housekeeping, message other guests and arrange car service. The apps are available for iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry and phones and tablets using Android and other operating systems.

The hotel industry has been trying to automate guest-service transactions for several years, but has been held back by technological limitations. The surging popularity of apps and smartphones may provide the increased operational efficiency and generate the additional room revenue they're seeking.

Instead of hotel staffers answering guests' calls and rerouting requests, orders placed in the software are sent directly to the department handling the service: room service orders to the kitchen, requests for toothpaste to housekeeping.

Several upscale hotels, including the Plaza and Royalton hotels in New York and the Hilton Inn at Penn in Philadelphia, are touting the technology and inviting guests to try it by providing iPads in rooms. The iPads are "locked" for the hotel services only, and guests aren't allowed to modify or download other apps, which works with the hotels. Guests are charged for the device if they forget to return it. 

For some hotels, distributing iPads is just too expensive and cumbersome. There are also issues with keeping them clean from both software and physical standpoints, say reports.

Avaya, an Internet telephone technology developer, is also eyeing the market, introducing its own tablet-size device that's connected to the hotel room phone and allows guests to order food or request services using touch-screen icons. The device has been installed recently at all rooms in its trial customer, Hotel Ignacio in St. Louis.

Most hotels will ease into the technology with phone apps, while others, such as Wyndham Hotels, have installed the PC-version as the welcome page of their Wi-Fi service.

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