Ruggedized Mobility: Invasion of the Consumer Devices

There are two worlds within the mobile universe. One is populated by smartphones, tablets, shiny new consumer toys… er… devices. A world dominated by Apple and Samsung, where the revolutionaries are millenials and white collar workers. Then there is the other one – the world of Rugged devices. The very word “rugged” conjures up a picture of muscular men, driving off-road vehicles. It is, infact, the world traditionally occupied by field force engineers, logistics businesses and those working in physically challenging environments. The dominant brand here is not Apple, but Motorola. The dominant OS isn’t iOS or Android, but Windows. And there isn’t a revolution in this market, yet. 


At the Mobility Matters, yesterday, we tried to bring these two worlds together, to ask the question – is there perhaps an argument for field force engineers, or delivery teams to be using consumer devices (smartphones & tablets) instead of the rugged devices they’ve been using for years? 


The lure is obvious – everybody loves iPads or smartphones. They are cheaper than their ruggedized counterparts. They are sweeping across the world and almost everybody has one at home, that is so easy to use, that the average 3 year old learns to swipe before he or she learns to turn a page of a book. What’s more, you can add clever apps on to these ipads, and connect them with your legacy system and off you go! Even better, because it’s an iPad, the user will look after it as a semi-personal device and loss & breakage will be lower. Simple, right? 


The short answer is, no. Certainly not at present. Here’s why. Let’s look at these arguments one by one. 


It turns out that in many organizations, there is a set of people who work in field force or logistics who are not millenials and are not pro-change. There are legions of stories about people resisting change, new technology or indeed technology itself. Without going into the argument of whether or not this is wrong and how it needs to be solved, the point is that plenty of people don’t want to be given an iPad or smart phone. Many are perfectly happy with the device they’ve been using and will resist change. In fact, in many businesses, this involves a renegotiation with a workers’ union. 


And it’s not that consumer devices are cheaper than rugged devices either, the TCO of consumer devices over 5 years is almost $18,000 compared to about $12,000 for ruggedized devices, and even over one year, consumer devices have a TCO of about $3,500 which is $1000 more than that of ruggedized devices. Remember that the consumer device users will expect to be upgraded on average every 18 months, rather than 4-5 years for rugged device users. The support costs of consumer devices is also significantly higher than that of rugged devices. 


Those expecting that the iPad might be better looked after, should also remember that the chances of theft or loss is much higher, that the battery life simply will not allow for a full day of use without a re-charge, that it might not be easy to use in bright sunshine, and will be less resistant to damp.


All the logic and evidence therefore points to the fact that consumer devices are not going to replace rugged devices in a hurry. Yet, scores of companies are going down this very route. Why?  

This is essentially a head vs heart debate. When we asked the question in a previous edition of Mobility Matters, most people came up with reasons for using an iPad at work that were essentially emotional rather than rational responses. Including “it’s the only device I can caress”. Steve Jobs called it “lickability”. Most people don’t know why they want one, but they do. It’s the lure of great design. 


We know of many organizations which have bought iPads by the thousands! Many of these may be used in rugged environments. After all, the list of organizations includes the US army, for example! But we expect that many businesses looking to replace rugged devices with iPads may come back to rugged devices in a few months time. 


Some of the more practical considerations includes breakage, the difficulty of supporting the device and the challenges of sharing a device (multiple users on a single device), etc. Interestingly, security is no longer a consideration apparently, as most managers seem to be comfortable with the level of security offered by most devices. Ultimately though it boils down to a matter of being “fit for purpose”. 


All of this should not be taken to mean that the bricklike devices of old, which lack any kind of aesthetic will continue to be the ugly cousin of the consumer device for ever. One of the key areas of impact of Apple in particular is the resetting of expectations around device aesthetics. As younger workers enter this market, there will certainly be a greater pull of the beautiful devices. We therefore expect to see a morphing of rugged devices to take on some of the aesthetic challenges of consumer devices – across form factor, screen size and accessories. 


Finally, lest we run the risk of allowing the device to define the industry, which would be tantamount to the tail wagging the dog, it boils down, of course, to the applications that actually run on the system. The key trend here is versatility. The future of rugged devices includes applications which do more, connect with multiple back end systems and are generally more versatile, in their coverage of tasks. The arrival of Microsoft Windows 8 might herald a new opportunity to make apps work across consumer and rugged devices, which would allow a much more seamless cross over between the device categories. 


Those among you who have built apps must be waiting to point out the central role of the user and managing the user experience. Yes, this is key, but at present, the device strongly influences the user experience. And it’s not just about what’s on the screen. 


So at present, one could argue that in it’s own category, the rugged device is still ahead of the consumer device. But the future could bring a few surprises. What if it’s not Apple but somebody else that creates the next compelling tablet? What if it able to seamlessly span the challenges for white collar and blue collar workers? These worlds are colliding and the race isn’t over yet. 


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