On any given day, on any given street, at any given moment, they’re out there: an army of 5.9 million U.S. field workers are delivering, repairing, selling, inspecting, measuring, maintaining and generally keeping commerce moving, according to VDC Research’s 2011 Enterprise & Government Mobility Field Mobility Solutions Report (www.vdcresearch.com). A significant number work for companies of fewer than 100 mobile workers—which often means basic or no mobile automation. The rest may be ready for the next generation of functionality and devices—but often their companies lack the time to stay up on the latest capabilities or know how to tap innovation while preserving their investment.
Mobility is hot, and so is cloud computing. Both are impacting the way users regard
commercial and ruggedized field mobile computer solutions, both positively and negatively. Here are the pros and cons of seven trends impacting field mobility that solution providers need to know about.
Mobile apps and data are increasingly available in the cloud
Pro: Affordability. Field organizations without the capital or IT resources to host their own apps and data and manage mobile devices can pay monthly out of operating budgets, and access more sophisticated software than they could afford to buy and gain mobility benefits faster. Bundling airtime, rugged mobile computer and an application makes adoption easy, says Roger Cresswell, director, industry marketing—field service for Intermec (www.intermec.com).
Field techs can easily access all kinds of data in the cloud—schematics, parts inventory, customer records, repair manuals or videos—on demand, and collect and upload data that speeds business processes. For example, Mitek’s (www.miteksystems.com) Mobile Imaging Platform enables solution providers to configure solutions to capture documents such as checks, bills, receipts, VINs, U.S. driver licenses, insurance cards and virtually any document, extract data, then send it to a cloud or host for access by backend systems.
That’s helpful, because many critical vertically-oriented legacy systems aren’t set up for real-time updates from the field. Cloud services can deliver the data in formats the legacy system likes, says Harry Lerner, CEO of Janam Technologies (www.janam.com). In addition, performing heavy-duty processing in the cloud relieves pressure on the mobile on-board processor. “We don’t have to be bleeding edge and can keep platforms alive for a longer time, avoiding forced obsolescence,” Lerner adds.
“Field service workers are being forced to do more with less, service-level agreement requirements are higher, and customer satisfaction levels are getting more difficult to meet,” says Gregg Anderson, director of mobile solutions for Psion (www.psion.com/us). “Cloud computing offers tremendous value in certain situations.” Cloud also works well when users have multiple devices, he adds, such as a rugged handheld for a tech and a smart phone for the supervisor.
Con: Not every cloud app is as customizable as needed. Browser-based apps are dead without connectivity. Frequent communication with a cloud-based app or database drives up connectivity costs; enterprises are controlling connectivity costs by tapping MiFis, wireless hot spots, and using a cellular hotspot/mobile area router in the field worker’s truck to piggyback handheld connectivity on the same data plan used for GPS/telematics, according to Matthew Belange, business development field force automation, Honeywell Scanning & Mobility (www.hon
eywellaidc.com). Solution providers must be careful not to over-engineer solutions to require excessive connectivity when store and forward will do.
Consumer devices are getting serious consideration
Pro: It’s driving interest in and acceptance of mobile. Mobile business solutions are adopting the look and feel of consumer apps. For rugged tablet maker Motion Computing (www.mo
tioncomputing.com), “the iPad helped validate the category and made people more comfortable with the fact that they don’t need a keyboard,” says Mike Stinson, vice president of marketing, who sees more widespread use of tablets and smart forms to speed data collection in the field.
Con: There are tons of issues when you take a consumer device into the field. Here are a few big ones:
Despite these challenges, consumer devices are making inroads. “I’m seeing CIOs being made to adopt iPads by CEOs,” says Jake Shuford, vice president of sales for CipherLab (www.cipherlab.com). “CEOs think it’s sexy and provides an image of their organization being current.” The company’s pocket-sized 1600 series scanners enable 1D and 2D barcode scanning on mobile devices, including consumer-grade products.
- significantly higher vulnerability to drops
- temperature changes
- contaminants and moisture
- lack of security
- theft appeal
- constantly changing operating systems
- charging and device battery management
- barcode scanning limitations for built-in cameras
- limited field installability of new modules such as RFID readers
Rugged mobile device makers are threatened
Pro: It’s driving the emergence of lower-tier, sexier and more affordable rugged devices. The biggest impact from consumer devices is seen in improvements in batteries and cost, according to VDC. Rugged devices are also getting prettier. “In the early days, the tougher-looking, the better,” says Dale Kyle, president of Handheld US (www.handheld-us.com). “Now there is a push to make it look attractive.”
“The upfront cost of devices that incorporate cellular radios and are rugged enough for use in field service environments have gone down, while the capabilities and ergonomics of the devices have risen sharply,” says Honeywell’s Belange.
Con: Rugged devices are a must for many applications, but vendors must thrive to keep innovating. “The notion of mobile computing as disposable is clearly an increasing sentiment when organizations are evaluating rugged devices,” writes David Krebs, vice president at VDC Research, in Rugged Mobile Computing is Dead, Long Live Rugged Computers! He calls rugged device makers “perhaps more exposed/vulnerable than ever,” citing customer-facing devices as most at risk. The TCO argument, based on the premise that solutions should last four to six years, changes when the end user thinks 18 months is just fine. Instead, Krebs says, TCO must be refocused on the damaging impact of a failed device on customer service and sentiment.
Platforms are in flux
Pro: Buyers get what they want (the military, for example, is reportedly an aggressive early adopter of Android). Ideas from the consumer world can easily migrate into enterprise. Enterprises can take advantage of “bring your own device” (BYOD) trends and avoid device investment.
Con: Android has multiple flavors and evolves quickly, complicating application support, in addition to posing manageability and security challenges for the enterprise. But an air of inevitability is driving mobile device makers and ISVs to adopt Android, with a handful of ISVs also adopting iOS.
ISVs must allocate limited development resources to a platform that doesn’t appear to offer many advantages over traditional operating systems like Windows Mobile. Device makers are trying to help: Motorola Solutions (www.motorolasolutions.com), for example, introduced RhoElements, a new HTML5 application enablement framework ISVs can use to develop enterprise applications once and deploy them on both traditional Windows Embedded Handheld and Android-based Motorola devices.
are driving new apps
Pro: Mobile software applications have opened up new selling opportunities for VARs looking to boost their
Con: Users bring consumer expectations to the U.I. A big one is multi-touch, a feature which requires use of capacitive technology, which isn’t water-resistant like resistive. “Keep your eyes peeled for matching both together,” hints John Pomerleau, field mobility principal for the Industry Solutions Group of Motorola Solutions, which unveiled its Android-based ET1 Enterprise Tablet last fall with pinch and zoom and a large screen for things like schematics and wiring diagrams. Touching also adds wear and tear to screens, which are also getting bigger.
Many more field applications are incorporating GPS for wayfinding, geolocation and fleet management, enabling backend dispatching apps to locate and redeploy the closest tech for emergency calls. Datalogic (www.mobile.datalogic.com) announced a deal last fall with Skyhook (www.sky
hookwireless.com) to embed Datalogic Mobile devices with its software-only location system, which determines precise device location quickly and accurately by synthesizing data from Wi-Fi access points, GPS satellites and cell towers, says Brigida Bellini, product manager, mobile computing, for Datalogic ADC.
Single or dual cameras—ubiquitous on smart phones—are seeing increasing field worker use in capturing damages, documenting work or proof of delivery and even apps such as dimensioning packages. ISV RealityMobile (www.realitymobile.com) uses cameras to enable mobile video collaboration for applications including live video, critical data and GPS tracking for communication for remote critical operations including HAZMAT spills, infrastructure damage, security breaches and industrial accidents and military operations.
As field organizations age, enterprises are using mobile to deliver knowledge management, delivering on-demand training to new workers, or video chat to a centralized expert, says Intermec’s Cresswell. “4G will make this even better,” since features such as video capture and uploading eat up processing power and bandwidth.
Apple’s Siri is triggering interest in voice-to-text and text-to-voice for field applications that require hands and eyes to be on task, such as collecting/accessing data, reading repair instructions aloud or reading service bulletins while the tech is driving. Vangard Voice Systems (www.vangardvoice.com) says it’s made this affordable for the enterprise with software that adds a small-footprint voice processing engine right in the device. Warehouse voice systems often involve costly integration to voice-enable server-based host applications, and even Siri records the voice for backend processing instead of on the smart phone, explains Dan Villanueva, vice president of marketing. Voice in the field works best with a noise-cancelling headset—perhaps one reason Villanueva says the biggest challenges to adoption are now cultural.
Opportunity Hasn't Changed
The real pro coming out of the evolving, disrupting technologies emerging in
mobility is the options it gives solution providers to find the right combination
of application, device and connectivity to enhance business processes.
Some food for thought:
- Downloading customer data into devices is great. However, accessing the repair history and just the right schematic and consulting a remote expert for that customer’s 17-year-old washer in real time is even better.
- Scanning a package to document delivery is good; including a photo of the package on the doorstep to head off delivery disputes is one degree better.
- Collecting a check is good. Swiping a credit card on the spot is better.
- Satisfying the solution provider’s customer is good. Delivering even more value than they asked for is much better.