Magazine Article | May 10, 2006

Mobility Gets Tougher

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Putting commercial-grade PDAs and converged devices into the hands of your field force might seem like a great idea. But a new class of rugged handhelds is probably a better option.

Integrated Solutions, May 2006

Sticker shock. It has to be the no. 1 reason commercial-grade mobile devices are chosen over their rugged counterparts for blue- and gray-collar applications. And on the surface, it’s hard to blame companies for the decisions they’ve made in this space. Rugged units can be as much as five times the cost of commercial-grade handhelds. So, you’re immediately looking at a significantly larger capital expense by opting for a rugged solution. It’s such a disparity, in fact, that companies are inclined to treat the commercial-grade units as almost disposable technology. After all, you can replace a commercial unit five times before it reaches the initial cost of one rugged unit. This type of thinking is shortsighted and really misses the point.

The reason companies deploy mobile technology to their field employees is to increase efficiency and productivity. In almost all cases, the mobile units rolled out to the field are mission critical. (Can a field service employee close out an appointment if his handheld is down? Can a route accounting rep close out a sale if he can’t access data on-site? Can a field tech perform scheduled maintenance without the proper information?) If the handheld goes down, the work pretty much grinds to a halt.

This reality really speaks to TCO (total cost of ownership). A few years back, analyst firm Venture Development Corp. did a landmark study on the TCO of both commercial-grade and rugged mobile computing devices. The conclusion drawn by the study was pretty clear: The TCO of commercial-grade units was higher than that of rugged devices. Despite the initially low capital expense, commercial-grade units will eventually prove costly in the areas of employee downtime and lost productivity, IT support, and reconditioning. Additionally, makers of commercial-grade devices tend to release next-generation products at least once per year. This means supporting multiple generations of products or making wholesale substitutions within the entire field force. All of these factors add up to a high TCO and have to be considered before a choice is made between rugged and nonrugged mobile devices.

Regardless of ruggedness, form factor can also play a significant role in product selection. If a handheld is the size and weight of a brick, it might not really matter if the device is rugged. If you’re looking for a converged device, you’re probably not going to be sold on having your techs carry both a rugged handheld and a mobile phone. This growing need – smaller, converged devices – has not gone unnoticed by rugged solution providers. (In fact, butting heads with commercial-grade vendors in prospective accounts has driven awareness as well.)

At its recent Customer Conference 2006, Psion Teklogix said it was planning to add a rugged PDA to its product line. Symbol and Intermec already have rugged PDAs as part of their product offerings. These vendors have taken what works in the traditional rugged space – connectivity, durability, flexibility – and put it in a form factor that fits in a shirt pocket.

Will this move eliminate commercial-grade PDAs in field force applications? No. But when the commercial-grade units fail, enterprises will have rugged options that they should have considered more closely in the first place.