Magazine Article | December 1, 2005

Mobile Workers Choose From Wide Range Of Form Factors

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Mobile workers have unique needs. Mobile device manufacturers are addressing these needs with a host of form factors.

Integrated Solutions, December 2005

Two things are certain about the mobility market. It's continuing to expand and attract new users. At the same time, the market is maturing. Both of these facts are leading technology vendors to produce a wider range of products that serve more specific segments and applications under the general umbrella of "mobility." It's not dissimilar from the television industry. There's a need for more than three network channels. Now, it's fractionalized to address very specific audiences. In the mobility market, this type of fractionalization results in form factors that address very particular end user needs.

In the field service market, end user companies can generally break down their mobile hardware options into a couple of basic categories. For example, do your mobile workers need rugged or non-rugged units? Once that decision has been made, then further qualifications can be added to the decision, such as form factor. Will your mobile workers need laptops or tablets or handheld units? This, however, is where the segmentation is happening. Your choices in terms of form factor are expanding.

Within the laptop market, for example, it's no longer a choice between just rugged and non-rugged units. Some technology vendors are now offering semi-rugged laptops that can't be used in extreme conditions but can certainly handle the vibrations and bumps subjected to them by mobile workers. Companies are also not limited to just the clamshell form factor with the availability of many convertible models that offer laptop and tablet functionality in one unit. It is not much different in the mobile handheld space as products differentiate themselves based on such criteria as screen size, data entry methods, and radio configurations (e.g. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, wireless WAN).

In today's current environment, you have more hardware choices than ever before. At every turn, there are products that address very specific needs in very different ways. The obvious choices may not be the best choices. As with any technology decision, it's imperative to analyze the needs of your mobile workers today and in the future, then choose the mobile units that best align with those needs. It seems straightforward, but it's a basic issue that can be overlooked. (Only after a company rolls out commercial-grade handhelds does it realize that rugged units are required. Or, handhelds are deployed only to find out that mobile techs don't have the screen real estate to view diagram specs in the field.) Review your requirements and consider all the options that are available. There might be more than you think.

There's little question that mobilizing your field service team will start with getting rid of pen and paper. But, does that have to be the case? It's assumed that pen and paper are inefficient, so replacing those tools will result in increased productivity. However, you don't have to replace pen and paper with traditional mobile computing form factors. For instance, ExpeData's approach is to keep the processes, but replace the standard tools. To accomplish this, the company offers digital pen and paper technology with software and hosted services tying the entire package together. "Field employees have been using traditional pen and paper for years. They're used to it. It's a very natural process for most field service personnel," states Doug Patterson, vice president and general manger at ExpeData. "With a digital pen and paper solution, you keep the processes that are effective and familiar. But, you eliminate the cumbersome data collection and inefficient follow-up data entry procedures."

The ExpeData solution has two "hardware" components. The first is a digital pen that has the same look and feel as any pen you'd find in an office supply store. The pen works in conjunction with digital paper, which is also supplied by ExpeData. The pen not only dispenses ink to create a hard-copy document, it also recognizes a user's writing as it occurs. The technology behind the digital paper allows each form to be uniquely identified. Further, fields within each document are uniquely identified. For instance, a field service employee might have to record a part number and price for a repair job. Not only does the pen recognize and capture the numerals for each of these tasks, but the location on the paper where they were recorded provides context for the numbers. "At the end of the shift, the field service employee simply docks the pen and the data is transferred from the pen to the company's back end systems," says Patterson. "There's no redundant and inaccurate data entry. This eliminates mistakes and speeds up transaction processing time with less headcount."

One of the main issues with rolling out different form factors to the field is that they often require IT departments to support different operating systems. For instance, most handhelds run on Windows Mobile or Windows CE. If it's not a flavor of Windows, then IT departments have to consider supporting Palm or BlackBerry in some cases. Tablet PCs typically run on Windows Tablet Edition, but this requires field apps work with touch-sensitive screens and digital inking. Laptops run on Windows XP - which eliminates the support issues - but the bulk remains.

Technology vendor OQO sidesteps these troublesome issues by producing a Windows XP-based laptop with far less heft and more portability. OQO's Model 01+ weighs just 14 ounces compared to a traditional laptop that can tilt the scale at 4 to 5 pounds. For field service people who have to carry the units all day, reducing weight can make a huge difference. The Model 01+ also runs Windows XP, which allows current and legacy Windows applications to run on the smaller unit with no reconfiguration. Additionally, new field service apps can be written with standard Windows development tools.

A smaller form factor, of course, means smaller methods of data entry. The unit offers a full QWERTY keyboard and track mouse. These might not be useful for blue collar field techs with gloves. However, white- and gray-collar mobile workers have no such issues. And for them, OQO's device - with Windows XP and familiar form factor - is basically a desktop in the field.

There's no shortage of handheld mobile devices for field service workers; however, Motorola believes the market can accommodate at least one more choice. The company is best known for its many lines of mobile phones. What's less well known is the work the company has done in the hardware space for companies with large mobile workforces, like FedEx. For years, Motorola has developed and manufactured rugged handheld devices. The catch: The units were custom devices, tailored to the needs of each particular customer set. With the recent release of the company's HC-700L, however, it's officially entering the enterprise industrial handheld space.

The HC700-L will compete with traditional players in that space (e.g. Symbol, Intermec, Psion Teklogix, Hand Held Products). The form factor is similar to other rugged units in that it incorporates keypad and touchscreen entry in a rugged enclosure. The differentiation point for the HC700-L is that it's the first product offering from the Mobile Computing division of Motorola's Enterprise Mobility business unit. The rugged unit is configured with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and wireless WAN radios for connectivity. Additionally, Motorola equipped the handhelds with imagers for 1D and 2D bar code applications. The HC700-L is part of an overall Motorola strategy in the mobility space that addresses mobile computing, mobile offices, and RFID technology.