By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine
Mobile technology users are pushing vendors for more consumer-like features and robust device management capabilities.
The mobile technology available to field service companies has changed dramatically over the past several years and is continuing to evolve at a rapid pace. The adoption of smartphones and tablets like the iPad has not only provided more hardware options, but also greatly influenced the design and capabilities of traditional rugged mobile devices. End users now have access to a wider variety of operating system platforms, application delivery models, hardware variations, and communications technologies than ever before.
This evolution is taking place within the context of an industry that is trying to balance operational efficiency with improved customer service. “This change is impacting our customers’ technology choices and driving the need to collect more comprehensive customer preferences in order to provide competitive service offerings which can then be delivered back to field service personnel on a device that is suitable for their environment,” says John Pomerleau, field mobility principal at Motorola Solutions. “The challenge in the service industry is for the field team to service not only the existing customer, but to determine what other services can be proactively offered. This requires data consumption that can be easily accessed and viewed from the field.”
The Tablet Takeover
One of the major shifts on the hardware side has been the adoption of tablets rather than handheld devices and smartphones, which is part of a larger movement toward consumer-style devices with larger screens. “They need the [screen] footprint for the more complex applications they are running,” says Jim Hare, vice president of FieldOne Systems.
The BYOD (bring your own device) movement is also affecting field service, although not as much as field sales and other whiteor gray-collar applications. But because many employees’ personal smartphones have just as much (or more) computing power as their work-issued devices, BYOD will be increasingly significant in the field service space.
How BYOD Impacts Application Selection
“The reality is that our customers can no longer successfully mandate which devices their employees will use in the field because in most cases, employees’ devices are already just as sophisticated as the ones issued by the organization,” says Irad Carmi, cofounder and CTO at TOA Technologies. “Any mobile enterprise taking advantage of BYOD must be prepared to offer their employees and contractors mobile applications that can run on any device. The only way to go about this is to select and deploy browser-based applications. This is becoming essential to ensure continuity of service and operational consistencies and efficiencies. Software providers are increasingly moving to HTML5-based applications delivered directly through the browser, because mobile organizations are demanding this as a solution.”
With so many types of devices entering the enterprise (both company-owned and personal), IT departments are struggling to get a grasp on managing network access and compatibility. “The complexity of the mobile ecosystem requires a more comprehensive and mobile-centric support model than currently exists within the customer IT support infrastructure,” says Peter Dalpe, vice president of managed mobile services at Stratix. “Customer internal resources are being overwhelmed by this complexity, and enterprises are increasingly looking to outsource.”
Hare sees companies moving to more “native” applications rather than browser-based solutions and an increased focus on simplicity, off-line functionality, and application design flexibility. “As organizations push mobility to less-skilled workers, ease of use is the driving requirement,” he says.
End User Expectations Are Evolving
Enterprises and their employees are demanding far more from their mobile solutions than they have in the past. End users expect more consumer-like functionality, navigation capabilities, built-in cameras, smaller form factors, and touch screens, but expects these devices to be hardened for enterprise use.
Those expectations extend to software as well. While traditional enterprise applications are only updated every few years, the cycle is much faster on the consumer side. “People see that the mobile applications they have on their own smart devices refresh automatically, daily,” Carmi says. “As a consumer, if you live in a world where all the applications you use are refreshed continuously, then you begin to develop the same expectations for your enterprise applications. Today, [SaaS] solutions delivered directly through the browser mean organizations don’t have to compromise as much and no longer need to rely on expensive upgrades for access to the latest features and functions of the solutions they need.”
According to Pomerleau, display/ screen technology has become increasingly important in the field. “We are seeing larger screen sizes used in customer-facing sales operations utilizing touch, pinch, and zoom features to share pictures, Web info, and videos,” he says. “In service situations, we see the move from traditional keyboards to soft keyboards to take advantage of larger screen form factors that can still be used in one hand.”
Communication and interconnectivity technologies are also increasingly in demand. These include chat, video conferencing, and social media-style applications that allow field technicians to communicate more easily in the field and share knowledge and resources.
“Thanks to mobile technology, all the information in the world is at my fingertips, so I no longer need to memorize it in order to be effective at my job,” Carmi says. “Also, now products and services are so complex that it often takes a whole team of people to know everything there is to know about how to deliver, install, or service them. So today, our success as individuals depends on our ability to share expertise amongst the team. This is why there is such a need for context-aware collaboration tools.”
Meanwhile, IT departments are being asked to support a wider range of device types, operating systems (Windows, Android, iOS), applications, and carriers. Customers want a single management platform that can handle this diversity.
“IT continues to run lean, and the complexity and rapid adoption of mobile has overwhelmed their internal resources,” Dalpe says. “We refer to this paradigm shift as the ‘Mobility Gap.’ User demands and expectations have exceeded IT’s ability to deliver.”
That’s why managed mobile services will become more prevalent as IT departments look for outside help in managing and monitoring these devices. Mobile device management (MDM) solutions will increasingly focus on security and privacy, which could also accelerate the adoption of new mobile devices (including BYOD deployments) in the enterprise, Dalpe adds. Other new MDM functions will include secure content management, email, application management, and license tracking.
New Technologies Present New Challenges
Not every new mobile technology is necessarily ready for enterprise use. Even the deployment of consumer devices (while more common) poses problems. While costs are low, model changes and OS updates can affect applications and accessories, as well as help desk support costs.
Other developments that are receiving a lot of attention, but are not yet mature enough to have much effect on field service deployments, are simultaneous video streaming (which will rely on faster 4G wireless networks) and voice activation/response technology. The latter has improved significantly, but still generates too many errors to replace keypunch or bar codebased solutions.
Windows 8 has also been hyped because of the potential the platform has in the tablet computing space, but Dalpe says it may be overblown. “The segmentation of the Windows 8 OS into full windows [for Intel-based devices] and RT [for ARM-based devices] has created confusion and reluctance on the part of the enterprise and application providers to rapidly adopt this OS,” Dalpe says. “We do not see a pause in implementations or adoption of iOS or Android to essentially wait for Microsoft. Enterprise customers that have begun deployments of iOS or Android are proceeding rapidly with those deployments and expanding them.”
Carmi adds that, even with all of these advancements, the industry still struggles with a basic challenge in mobile deployments: battery life. “For consumers to be able to use the powerful applications we want and for enterprises to be able to use the powerful applications they need, that challenge must be met,” Carmi says. “So in order for field workforces to rely completely on new, sophisticated devices, this very mundane battery-life problem, which is actually very complex, must be solved.”