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
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."