9 March 2012
Which mobile device?
Let's face it, if you have a mobile workforce, you need mobile computers. The question is really what kind you need. We've reviewed the options in recent issues of m.logistics; now Sharon Clancy pulls the threads together
As with many innovations, the idea of providing computers to mobile workforces was slow to take off, but in the last few years such equipment has become almost the norm. In fact there’s been little short of an explosion of interest, accompanied (some would say driven) by the recent excitement in the fast-moving consumer mobile device sector.
This trend has now even penetrated corporate boardrooms, gaining impetus from the launch of Apple’s iPhone and latest iPad tablet. For many, tablets are currently a must-have mobile device.
One thing that distinguishes the consumer market from the industrial, though, is that the consumer operating system of choice is not necessarily Microsoft Windows; people have become used to Android-powered mobile phones, and some are now willing to try Android on other mobile devices in the business sector, including rugged.
Undoubtedly consumer developments are having a real impact on the conventional mobile business computing sector. Rugged computer manufacturers, for example, now offer light semi-rugged devices, and later this year you can expect more them to start offering ruggedised tablets.
Considerations such as total cost of ownership and three- to-five-year device life have been joined by the need for additional functionality that can be exploited by software developers – which in turn can add productivity to a mobile operation, increasing efficiency.
Some solutions providers argue that applications are the key these days, and it’s true that users will increasingly pick their device according to the applications they want to run. But other factors are important too.
"This really is, and will remain, a case of ‘horses for courses’," says Nigel Doust, chief executive of Blackbay. "Organisations deploy software that meets the individual needs of the different parts of their business. This means they need different types of mobile device for different employees, and there is a growing demand for mixed mobile device estates."
Similar mobile devices are increasingly being deployed by more than one set of employees in a given business, says Doust. "With the emergence of new semi-rugged devices and the increased functionality available from the latest smartphones, service engineers and salesmen, for example, can both use the same type of device." He adds the proviso that this commonality would not apply where one set of employees might use the device in a particularly harsh environment.
"Choice is now a lot wider, so buyers need to focus on what is fit for purpose, says Alan Edwards, marketing manager EMEA at Intermec. "Decide which features have priority. For some deployments, ruggedness might be the priority, while for other duties form factor and functionality might be key."
Intermec, like other device manufacturers, has a foot in both camps, with the semi-rugged small form-factor CS40 complementing the fully rugged CK range.
Fit for purpose
Everyone agrees that whatever device you select, it has to be fit for purpose. User-companies can longer realistically expect to have a single mobile device for all their operations, says Khaid Kidari, product manager for DAP Technologies. "The needs of mobile warehouse workers differ from those of remote workers. A retail environment is less harsh than an oil refinery."
"If you are buying mobile devices for in-warehouse operations, you can’t afford to compromise on ruggedness or reliability will drop," advises Andrew Donn, sales director at Psion.
"For devices used outside the four walls, however, functionality and features can be equally important, partly to satisfy demand from software developers. Accelerometers, proximity sensors, magnetometers and gyroscopes are all vital in providing data to certain applications, he points out.
Drop-test ratings are particularly relevant if the devices are being used in an environment where they might be subject to frequent falls, points out Guy Boxall of Casio. "If devices are likely to be dropped off a high warehouse shelf or a raised folk-lift truck, do compare drop test heights. These are typically 1.5 to 2 metres on to concrete. Our DT-8, however will survive 50 drops to concrete from 3 metres (10ft)."
If your primary use for a mobile device is electronic data capture, rather than job progress or work processing, an electronic pen is a potential alternative, and is arguably easier to implement.
"Growing familiarity with friendly touch-screens and apps in the consumer world is making it easier for non-technical mobile workers to accept smartphones and PDAs at work," says Destiny Wireless founder Edward Belgeonne. "Yet some of the inherent issues still remain – for instance, small screen size and visibility, constraints of network coverage and congestion, security issues, loss of power, and even the risk that the user will be distracted by social networking instead of actually working."
Pen and paper still represent the most widely-used form of IT capture, transfer and processing in the world, points out Belgeonne. Digital pens give the ease and simplicity of writing with a pen, while the digitising happens transparently.
Once data has been captured, it can typically be transmitted, converted and integrated into a central system within three minutes – using GPRS to transfer small files, and without the need for 3G or big broadband.
Destiny argues that with little or no need for training, change to working practices or IT support, and very low risks with security, power or data loss, digital pens can show an average monthly saving per user of £180. It says the ROI can often be measured in months or even weeks.
Consumer-grade devices have become prevalent in some mobile workforce applications, admits Honeywell’s Davis, but he urges caution. "Many users of these devices will experience unplanned downtime caused by damaged devices or dead batteries – which won’t occur with a rugged device."
The good news is that if your operational needs demand an ultra-portable small-format voice-data device, the is now a selection of rugged PDAs to fit the bill, including Honeywell’s Dolphin 6000 Scanphone, Intermec’s CS40, Motorola’s ES 400 and Psion’s EP10.
Another key factor in ensuring devices are fit for purpose is ergonomics. "If a device is heavy or difficult to use, productivity will be hampered," points out Nigel Owens, UK manager for Motion Computing. "It needs to be lightweight, have stylus input, have a display that is viewable under any lighting conditions and be large enough to display multiple screens of data, and support peripherals."
Kidari warns about compromising too much on functionality. "A device which delivers 80 per cent of the desired functionality may seem an acceptable compromise, but at some point you are going to find a way of restoring that 20 per cent; operational efficiency will demand it." At the same, says Kidari, buyers need to remember that technology comes at a price. "Over-specifying will increase the cost."
One way of reducing cost it is to opt for a modular platform that allows you to add data-capture options at a later date. "For example, warehouse applications might involve a change to high-level bays, requiring a shift to long-range scanning," says Andrew Donn, sales director for Psion, whose Omnii platform has been designed from the ground up to enable developers and users to specify a device that suits their needs.
"Some modular platforms simply allow you to bolt on additional data capture devices as a later date. Omnii is different, in that it is designed for any upgrades to be fully integrated into the device."
Moreover, devices need not be returned to Psion to be modified or upgraded. "Our partners are authorised to do it, and even carry stocks of the more popular modules, such as scanners and imagers."
The company’s new XT-15 device (see panel for full description) has six keypad choices and complements the in-premise XT-10 model.
Intermec’s 70-series CK and CN ranges are also built on a single architecture platform, with one set of peripherals and a single charging system. This simplifies updates, training, spares buffers and chargers, points out Evans. "Radios, keypads and imagers, can be tailored to suit the task in hand."
Future Intermec products will be designed to use the same docking and charging systems, with only a change of cup.
Rivalry between Microsoft and Android will continue to be a big talking point in 2012, say device manufacturers.
"We have been seeing more interest in Android devices lately from our customers," says Blackbay’s Nigel Doust. Android’s flexible open-source software platform has resulted in the rapid growth of this operating system for use in consumer smartphones and tablets, and this has led to the inevitable questions regarding possible plans by device manufacturers to develop Android-based rugged products for field applications.
The main concern for the device manufacturers is to ensure that Android is sufficiently reliable for enterprise applications. It’s not a straightforward optional choice, either. "Check that legacy applications will run on an Android-based hardware," advises DAP’s Kidari. Presumably a lot won’t.
"It’s essential to ensure Android is a stable operating system at enterprise level," says Mark Davis of Honeywell, which is planning to launch its 7800 device with Android OS later this year.
Battery life and power management of devices are now accepted as key factors in ensuring productivity and in total cost of ownership. Battery life is dependent on how large the battery is, says Guy Boxall of Casio. "Sharing the available capacity between screen, scanner and radio devices as demand dictates and switching between an active and semi-active standby mode extends the battery life. On our DT-X8, for example, we are achieving 25 hours."
Today, a mobile device that will deliver a full eight-hour shift on a single battery has become a de facto standard. There are additional benefits too, points out Honeywell’s Davis. "Our client USP has been able to eliminate the cost of in-vehicle chargers because the batteries and power-management features on Dolphin 99EX devices provide ample charge for a full shift."
Psion seems to have raised the bar when it comes to battery life. Its new XT-15 has a claimed battery life between recharging of up to 20 hours. "Even taking into account the more frequent use of power-draining applications such as location fixes, that still leaves a comfortable margin, and ensures a full shift from a single charge," says Donn.
The more frequent the recharging, the shorter the battery life, so batteries should need replacing less frequently too, he points out.
Smartphones verses tablets
For applications that don’t need keypad data entry, touch-screen devices have great appeal, not least in terms of their low up-front costs. However, tablet manufacturers warn that smartphones pose other challenges besides their lack of ruggedness and tendency to be subject to frequent model updates.
"Relative to smartphones, tablet PCs are a better choice for capturing business-critical data and running software systems as well as applications that are designed for a desktop interface or require several screens of data," says Motion’s Nigel Owens. "Smartphones aren’t designed for network interoperability, nor do they provide the same level of power, performance and security."
Screen size is an important factor in productivity, points out Owens. "Field data shows that user compliance drops off after two to three screens of data, and this can be a real problem when working with a smart-phone’s smaller display."
Tablet manufacturers are not just relying on large touch screens as their key selling point, though. They have realised that they also need to extend the functionality of their products.
Motion Computers, for example, has extended the functionality of its CL900 tablet with the Slatemate. This incorporates a magnetic-stripe reader and barcode scanner, both of which are integrated into the internal frame, so there is no compromise in terms of ruggedness. The company says that other data capture options could be incorporated in the same way.
Tablets certainly offer more potential for adding functionality, but buyers need to ensure there are sufficient ports to do this, advises Khalid Kidari. "Mobile solutions will increase demand for multiple data input/output ports on devices. Some mobile devices have only one input/output port, which can hamper efficiency and the ability to add functionality later."
DAP’s M9010 tablet includes USB, ZigBee wireless technology and wireless broadband 3000. It also includes basic functionality such as a 1D laser scanner, a touch screen that can be operated with gloves, and a screen that automatically orients itself to the way the user is holding the tablet.
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Do make sure you have a service agreement in place, advises Intermec’s Alan Edwards. "Businesses have more and more mobile devices to manage. Whether you do it yourself of outsource it, a mobile device management system allows you to monitor users and organise repairs online."
Today’s devices can tell you a lot about how they are being used and when and why they might fail. Manufacturers have given their current ranges the ability to capture highly granular data about how they are used.
They call this "data mining", and it can tell you, for example, how often the scan engine is used on a device, the number of times the battery is completely discharged, when the device is being docked, and when it is out of communication range. All this data can help managers identify exactly where the issues are with their mobile deployments, says Edwards.
The data can be invaluable for maintaining mobile worker productivity in the field, say the manufacturers. Honeywell’s Davis points out: "A large percentage of helpdesk calls are related to device configuration issues, which can be resolved with MDM without on-site visits, and security patches and system updates can be done remotely." He adds: "This can help answer questions such as: Why is one engineer more productive than another?"
Honeywell, indeed, is about to introduce the latest version of its device management application, Remote Mastermind. It can now be used to monitor other makes of device apart form Honeywell, including peripherals such as scanners and printers.