Magazine Article | June 26, 2012

The Consumerization Of Enterprise IT

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine

New platforms and devices are truly changing the face of enterprise mobility.

Consumer-style technology has a strong foothold in the enterprise, and consumer devices like iPhones and tablets are working their way into applications that have traditionally been served by specialty rugged devices — field service, maintenance, delivery, etc. In the past, the tradeoffs involved in deciding between rugged or consumer- grade hardware were mostly centered around cost versus durability and functionality. Increasingly, though, operations and IT managers are giving consumer- style hardware, operating systems, and even applications a second look for other reasons.

As mobile technology has become more ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives, smartphones and other devices offer companies easy-to-use interfaces, lower training requirements, multicommunication capabilities, new features, and lower technical support and assistance costs. Employees have grown accustomed to iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry-style interfaces that may not be supported on Windows-based mobile platforms.

"These software applications are driving new operating systems [Android and iOS primarily], screen technology, processor and memory choices, search engines, and battery usage profiles," says John Pomerleau, field mobility principal, North America, at Motorola Solutions. "The challenge for enterprise software providers is converting or in some cases assessing the value of porting their applications to the newer operating systems or in some cases, with a more complicated legacy application, a complete rewrite."

Using consumer-style devices for an enterprise application can lower the barrier of entry for smaller organizations. However, the total cost of ownership calculation can break down depending on factors like environmental conditions, peripheral support, the complexity of the business processes, and consumer operating system stability.

Still, many organizations are performing this calculus, and still selecting nonrugged hardware for non-Windows operating environments. "The variety of devices now available and the new capabilities that keep being added have mostly removed the need for custom hardware," says Ed Bohlke, president of JumpStart Wireless. "Also, given the much lower price point for consumer devices, the need for ruggedization is greatly reduced. You can go through quite a few iPhones or BlackBerrys before you reach the cost of one traditional rugged device. For those unique cases where more protection is required, an add-on [protective] case is usually sufficient."

The Impact Of The Device Life Cycle
There are drawbacks to this approach, though. Some of the devices' positive attributes can also lead to abuse or higher than expected ownership costs. "Consumer devices are priced attractively as manufacturers are forecasting replacements between 14 to 18 months versus the 48+ months of a rugged device," says Michael Macaro, director of business development at Mobile Computing Corp. (MCC). "These devices tend to be subsidized by carriers, at a minimum fixed term of at least 36 months. Devices may not operate full term, and replacement devices will come at a premium. With all of the added features [camera, GPS, Web access, social content programs, etc.] users may be challenged on remaining focused in their primary business objectives. Battery life, device replacement programs, and effective life cycle management will play an increasingly important role in the device selection and total cost of ownership process."

There are also inherent obstacles in using either iOS (which is tightly controlled by Apple and presents challenges in having applications approved) and Android, which as an open source platform may not be stable enough to support some applications. "Businesses want to control whether they can accept an OS refresh and test it with existing applications to make sure it does not ‘break' anything in the system," Pomerleau says. "Consumer hardware has a short shelf life. It is designed to go in and out of fashion quickly, and it's possible that the hardware unit you start with during your pilot may not be available when you start your rollout. This could mean revalidating the applications, peripherals, cases, printers, and accessories, causing significant frustration and delays."

Rugged Hardware Manufacturers Play Catch-Up
The popularity of these new mobile devices has put more pressure on specialized and rugged hardware manufacturers to match many of the features of their consumer cousins. The challenge for manufacturers has been selecting the best attributes of those consumer devices and adding them to enterprise devices, while maintaining enterprise stability on operating system churn, hardware churn, device management, and security. Enterprise applications also require more application complexity than could be supported on consumer-grade hardware, including elements like support for mobile printing, support for DEX (direct exchange) connections (for direct store delivery), vehicle-specific routing, and other features.

The entire market for rugged devices may need to change in order to continue competing with newer classes of devices. Enterprise-class devices tend to be more expensive, built to order, have long lead times, and may only be available through authorized resellers or distributors. "Rugged device manufacturers may need to consider increased agility in exercising product availability through additional multivendor programs," Macaro says. "Device options need to drive real-life field limitations."

According to Bohlke, rugged device manufacturers will need to apply more design elements of the smart-phone world, while continuing to drive down the cost of the devices. "For rugged device vendors to be relevant going forward, they need to start making devices for consumers," he says. "That means at a price point that appeals to consumers and with a much higher ratio of screen size to overall device size and weight."

Pomerleau says the biggest impact consumer-style interfaces have had is in simplifying the interaction between the end user and the data on the mobile device, taking advantage of features like graphics, pinch, zoom, scrolling, and "screen flick" attributes. But ruggedization still matters in field service applications; the devices will get wet, they will get cold, and some users will have to operate them while wearing gloves. "The difference between consumers and the enterprise is that mobile workers are running your business on those devices to provide value to end customers," Pomerleau says. "Blending the best attributes of consumer capacitive screen technologies with efficient and reliable touch-sensitive resistive screen technologies is a win for enterprise-grade devices."

Windows Alternatives Emerging
As mentioned previously, using an operating system other than Windows presents both risks and opportunities. The interfaces are more modern and flexible, but a platform like Android may be unstable, less secure, and will present some device management challenges.

"The challenge has been to determine how to provide ease of use to the end user yet still provide the device management, OS upgrade management, and security on those devices," Pomerleau says. "The traditional enterprise and public safety ISV (independent software vendor) has to migrate their applications to Android and also be able to work on several operating systems, which adds complexity to support."

Android's open source model is appealing, though, and Windows may not be able to keep up with the pace of innovation on that platform. "Android may have a big impact here," Bohlke says. "There is significant interest in alternatives to Windows, and the variety of Android devices makes developing for this platform very appealing. The pros are cost, the variety of devices, and the accelerating proliferation of the platform, which means an increasingly large pool of developers are moving their focus here. The cons: Bar code and RFID scanning are usually clumsy add-ons."

Field service and other enterprise mobile applications are slowly adapting both to support these new platforms, as well as meet end user expectations about how the interface should look and operate. In the case of Android, the field service market could benefit from creative ISVs and hardware providers that make use of the platforms' new capabilities.

"[This is] raising the bar of the user interface experience," Bohlke says. "Even though their use may be internal to the enterprise, all categories of enterprise users — from techs executing service orders to executives looking at mobile dashboards — are now accustomed to slicker graphics and intuitive flow of consumer apps and much less willing to put up with the clumsy, sterile, or slow enterprise software they've seen in the past."

It is now the norm to integrate features like inclinometers, accelerometers, biometric security, and other elements into these devices and applications. Organizations want the option to utilize these features, which is transforming the device selection process.

The enterprise requirements of applications, manageability, security, support, specialized accessories, printing, and replacement/repair are critical to making a mobile workforce project successful, Pomerleau adds, but the user interface is going to evolve as more consumer technology enters the enterprise. "The end user experiences a more enjoyable and friendly interface when they can manipulate the screen with pinch, zoom, and flicking of data," Pomerleau says. "It is forcing a modernization of traditional field applications that mostly impacts the mobile worker outside the four walls. [However], selecting the most appropriate device must be based on sound analysis, and not on consumer trends or end user pressure, in order for the organization to provide the best sustainable service and value to their end customer through mobility."