Magazine Article | October 26, 2012

One Mistake To Avoid When Selecting Handhelds

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Pedro Pereira, Field Technologies magazine

Fitting consumer products into settings that require rugged handhelds hurts productivity and ROI.

Consumer-grade devices have made their way into the enterprise — and for some applications, they’re great. For others, though, they simply won’t cut it. Sure, you can force consumer- grade mobile devices into use by workers who would be better served with rugged handhelds, but doing so can invite a host of problems that may make you regret that decision, say executives in the rugged handheld device industry I spoke with recently. According to these experts, not only are the consumer devices likely to hurt productivity and cause user frustration, but they ultimately also will cost more.

While rugged handheld makers have an obvious reason to make this argument, they all have anecdotal evidence to show consumer smartphones and tablets are a bad fit for many enterprise-level field service applications. Companies have turned to these experts after deployments of consumer-focused devices have gone awry, and so they have witnessed firsthand the effects of companies misusing nonrugged machines to save money. More often than not, selecting a device on price alone produces undesirable outcomes.

“Real world examples include damaged displays caused by aggressive use and handling and repetitive drops to the floor or ground, where even carpeted environments can damage a non-rugged device,” says Brad Wall, director of mobility solutions at handheld device vendor Datalogic. In addition, he says, fast-changing form factors and third-party application obsolescence limit the support life of devices built for consumer use.

Match Mobile Devices To Work Settings
Any environment that involves a lot of physical work, constant or near-constant motion, jostling, and rough handling can benefit from rugged mobile devices. Some of these applications include courier and shipping services, warehousing, and utility meter reading. But they also include potentially more demanding environments such as use by airline ground crews, mechanics, and workers in the logging industry who employ handhelds for such tasks as surveying and inventory. In many of these settings, the devices have scanning capabilities and ergonomic pistol grips designed for specific purposes — features that can’t be replicated effectively with consumer devices.

Moisture and dust are common in a lot of rugged environments; in some cases there is even the possibility of dropping the device in water, says Jay Lauer, marketing manager at Opticon, a maker of fixed and mobile scanners. “You look at the environmental conditions and also at the nature of the job, the physicality involved. What is the person doing for a living? Getting in and out of vehicles, climbing ladders, going down manholes? You have to take into account they can accidentally kick-drop the device. They have to have a device that’s usable for the task at hand, and that even means taking into account whether they have big hands or use gloves for the work.”

The Consequences Of Using Consumer Devices In A Rugged Environment
Rugged devices are built to withstand a lot of abuse, hence their designation as “rugged.” John Gibson, VP and general manager at Yellow Fin Distribution, North American distributor for Bluebird devices, says rugged units are put through rigorous tests so they can survive more than 1,000 drops from 3-foot heights and resist dust and moisture for up to seven years. Nonrugged devices, which do not undergo such tests, cannot withstand the manhandling common to rugged environments, he says. “If you use a non-rugged device and you drop it, you can’t do your job for the day, or you have to write things down, which leads to loss of information and productivity. You start opening the enterprise to risk because the information needed is nonexistent or inaccurate. We come across this all the time,” Gibson says.

Such situations, agrees Lauer, lead to downtime. And that means lost sales opportunities, productivity hits, customer frustration, and added burdens for the IT staff. The problem can be especially acute, he points out, if the IT staff is more experienced with rugged technology and is forced to work on consumer-class devices.

Even wrapping a nonrugged device with a protective case has limitations. This approach, says Wall, will work in a whitecollar context “where you are a salesperson or manager running a route or district and are handling the device as if it’s your own. In this case, a ruggedized unit could be considered overkill.” However, he points out, in more demanding environments the units could collect moisture inside the protective case or overheat if left in a vehicle for too long, causing them to malfunction.

Another consequence of misusing consumer devices centers on ROI. While you may think you’re saving money by opting for nonrugged units, companies end up paying more on replacement costs both as a result of breakage and shorter lifespans. There are also extra costs from training IT staff that traditionally have worked with rugged machines to start supporting consumer-based units, notes Gibson.

Replacements of nonrugged devices are far more frequent than rugged units, to the tune of 82% vs. 18.2% in the first three years, says Wall, citing a VDC Research report. “Even at a lower up-front cost per device today, these replacement estimates would make the deployment of a smartphone field mobility solution a losing proposition for any end user for the months ahead,” he says.

Consumer Devices Influence Rugged Device Design
Though rugged handheld makers discourage the use of consumer- focused devices in demanding environments, they concede that nonrugged devices have had some positive effects on their products, primarily in regard to design. Gibson says consumer devices have forced rugged handheld makers to design smaller products and start integrating such capabilities as touch screens with multigesture (e.g. zoom, rotate) controls.

Wall says rugged handheld manufacturers have started offering devices that bridge the gap between consumerclass and purpose-built rugged products with price points that are closer to consumer devices. And they are now making products that easily fit in a pocket or purse while still providing acceptable scanning capabilities.

Lauer says consumer-device influence on rugged handhelds has been mostly a positive development, but there are limitations. “You can’t make a device so small that the keys are unusable and hard to see,” he says. “It’s sure been a benefit to the end users to make devices much smaller, sleeker, faster, and fully integrated, though it has put pressure on us to design devices better and still make them rugged.”