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As businesses mobilise more of their business processes, consumer devices are proliferating in the workplace. This trend has given new impetus to the “rugged versus consumer” debate, raising very valid questions about what type of mobile device actually does suit the various tasks these products are intended to cope with.
Rugged tablet computers have certainly given excellent service in sectors such as utilities and emergency services, where processing power, outdoor screen visibility and high levels of reliability are required.
Similarly rugged handheld computers are popular because they are reliable, versatile and easily configurable. They may have relatively small 3.5in screens, but that’s not seen as a particular problem because the data-capture tasks are straightforward.
At the other end of the scale are the consumer devices. They’re undoubtedly cheaper, and have the shine of user appeal shine, and boast countless intuitive apps. But their components are not designed to last the rough-and-tumble of intensive eight-hour daily use.
And in between come a new breed of hybrid devices, with shiny smartphone-style skins underpinned by rugged features to enhance reliability.
There is no doubt that the low deployment cost of smartphones is attracting users. “The major selling point for smartphones is that you can buy two for the price of one rugged device,” says Eric de Greef, EMEA sales director for Honeywell.
However, he urges caution. “Durability is consideration. There is a risk of increased breakdowns and failures with consumer devices, so businesses must consider what will happen to their operation when a device gets broken in service. How long will it take to get a fully-configured replacement device to that mobile worker? What is the impact on productivity of the business if the device fails early on in a shift?”
There have always been alternatives to rugged devices, points out Damien Penney, managing director of Peak-Ryzex. “Shiny devices such as PDAs have always had appeal to some companies.”
What has changed, he reports, is that the consumer smartphone manufacturers are now targeting business sectors where rugged devices have traditionally prevailed, and trying to cater for them as well.
“Rugged device manufacturers have responded with devices that have consumer appeal with a rugged platform under the shiny skin,” Penney says. The idea of course is to present them as the best of both worlds. “Users don’t feel they are getting an industrial device with little appeal, yet managers benefit from greater reliability than is usually possible with a consumer device.”
“Fit for purpose” should still be the mantra for any deployment, says Penney. “Basic questions include what tasks is the device being used for, what is happening with users and devices once they hare out in the field, and how you manage repairs, replacements and issues such as connectivity.”
For logistics companies, one of key differentiator could well be how well the device reads barcodes. “Some of the operations where smartphones are being considered are scan-intensive,” says de Greef “ – parcel and courier delivery, for example. Using a smartphone camera to scan a barcode takes time, partly because it’s not ergonomic; the camera is has to be positioned precisely over the barcode.
“This might sound a trivial thing, but it’s an important consideration in some operations because it can have a big effect on worker productivity and acceptance.” He reports the findings of a French customer who did some comparative tests with Honeywell’s 70E device and a Samsung Galaxy phone. The 70E read a barcode in less than half a second, while the smartphone took up to two seconds.
However, businesses are looking at mobilising other areas of their business, Penney points out, admitting: “Not all these require rugged devices.
“They may be used in less hostile environments – front-of-store rather than back-of-store in a retailer, for example, or on a service management task within a building. Consumer devices are very cheap, and they have appeal when companies are looking for a quick fix for a particular need.”
Another factor influencing device choice, says Penney, is the speed at which mobile technology is evolving. “Businesses don’t want to be left behind. It depends on the application, but five years is now considered a long time between device refresh cycles. Users are more comfortable with a three-year cycle.”
Eric de Greef agrees. “The replacement cycle for industrial devices is still five to seven years, but for enterprise handheld devices such as the 6000, it’s three to five years.”
He thinks “enterprise hybrid devices” will grow in popularity as businesses experience the true cost of consumer smartphones. These combine a large touch screen and the appearance of a smartphone with more inbuilt ruggedness, along with powerful computing power and large memory. “The test for user acceptance is: ‘Would you be ashamed to take a phone call on your work device in a social situation?’.”
Some smartphone manufacturers are now starting to quote IP ratings dust and water resistance ratings for their devices, but de Greef says such claims need careful examination. “Is the device turned on when it is under water, and has it undergone a tumble test where the device hit concrete at its corners?”
Interest in tablets for in-vehicle computing and communication is growing, says Nigel Owen, UK managing director of Motion Computing. “They have more input-output ports, so can easily interface with other peripherals such as on-board cameras. In effect, they become the intelligent hub of the vehicle.”
Tablets have appeal for certain sectors, agrees Paul Ridden, managing director of software specialist Skillweb. “However, before moving to tablets, you must understand the business case and balance the desire for new technology with business needs and process.
“What practical benefit would tablets bring compared with a rugged handheld device? Would it make the job any easier? Technical platforms allows more agile solutions, so one advantage could be that a tablet might allow more apps to run on the device, while another could be the extra data capture facility. For example, you could display extra information, or prompts for an on-the-spot customer survey.”
Will consumer tablets be deployed more widely for business applications? Ian Davies of Motion Computingsays businesses that have already deployed rugged tablets understand total cost of ownership, so are not being tempted by consumer tablets. “However, when the actual buyers in a company are not involved in the operational side they don’t fully appreciate the benefits, so are attracted to the lower costs of consumer tablets.”
Honeywell is not in the tablet market, but de Greef reports no exploding demand for tablets from customers. “However, there is demand for bigger 4.7in and 5in screens rather than the 3.5in typical of most handheld rugged devices.”
However, he adds: “Buyers should take into account the fact that the bigger the screen, the heavier the device and the greater the power consumption.”.
There is no great demand for Android on rugged tablets, according to Motion’s Nigel Owens. “Many users have legacy software running on Microsoft Windows 7 and XP, and they want to retain that. Switching to Android would entail software rewrites.”
Many rugged manufacturers now offer a choice between Windows EH and CE on one hand and Android on the other. “ISVs are developing Android or WEH versions of apps to hedge their bets,” comments de Greef. “There is support for WEH until 2020 and Windows CE remains popular in some sectors, such as retail.” Buyers don’t have to make an immediate decision, he advises. “Windows 8 will support features on AIDC devices such as imagers, keypad and so on.”
Penney of Peak-Ryzex predicts the proliferation of mixed estate will increase the need for managed services and mobile device management tools. “Users who deploy consumer devices need more information about what happens to them and the applications in service. MDM can capture a lot of granular data from devices automatically, which in turn can be used to improve productivity, address user issues and deliver predictive analytics about issues such as imminent battery failures.”
In-vehicle cradles or docks are often overlooked in the buying-decision process, but can have a big impact on total cost of ownership and reliability. Rugged tablet specialists Motion and JLT both make that point.
Each has unveiled new a tablet computer recently, and both feature new docking arrangements. “The question of how the dock attaches to the vehicle is important from both a usability viewpoint and a security standpoint,” says Ian Davies of Motion Computing. “If the tablet has its own specific dock and is permanently installed in the vehicle, that lessens the attraction to thieves. If the tablet is removed regularly (for signature capture, for example), that requires a dock that makes it easy to remove the tablet but is also secure for charging purposes. With some docks, users think they have the device secured and charging, when in fact they haven’t.”
Davies accepts that if the vehicle is leased, users need to consider a non-permanent docking mechanism and charging solution, but warns: “Cheap docks won’t be able to cope with the g-force of any impact that might result in damage to the tablet. Power from the cigarette lighter or USB dock in modern vehicles is not secure; you’re relying the charger remaining in place and the driver connecting it properly.”
There are also driver distraction issues to consider, says Davies. “Our new tablet has a motion sensor that blanks the screen once the vehicles reaches a certain speed. The sensor is actually in the dock, so can’t be tampered with. At the same time, the sensor knows the device orientation, so if the tablet is swung to the passenger the screen will be viewable.
Swedish manufacturer JLT has a different perspective on the question of secure mounting. “Demand is moving away from permanently-fixed vehicle-mounted computers,” says chief executive Per Holmberg. “Users now want portability, so computers can be transferred easily from one vehicle to another. This is true even for vehicle-mounted computers on fork-lift trucks, where users now want to be able to remove the tablet from the FLT for other tasks.”
Removable computers also improve security and make repairs easier, he points out.
If you tablets need to be taken outdoors, ensuring they are fit for purpose also means taking into consideration other factors, Holmberg points out. “Protection from the weather is essential, not just on the tablet but on the dock as well. Resistive touch screens that can be used with gloves or when the screen is damp and have zoom capabilities are more versatile than capacitive screens, and toughened glass will be more resistant to scratching.” JLT’s new Quicklock dock, for example has lid that flips automatically.