by Purushottam Darshankar
One of the most critical part of enterprise mobility solution is the selection of appropriate commercial or ruggedized mobile device. Inevitably the environment in which the devices would be used should drive this decision; however, there is trend of deploying commercial grade devices in traditional rugged markets. Leading factors driving the selection of commercial over ruggedized device include, among others, the lower upfront investment, access to more current technology and short replacement requirements.
Though the TCO (Total Cost of ownership) is low with commercial grade devices, the ruggedized devices provide superior cost profile to commercial grade solution in select environments. For example, in harsh field environments such as accident sites, property damage sites, supply chain/transportation and public safety, the annual TCO of a mobile rugged device is as much as 35 percent lower than for non-rugged devices.
On average, 4 percent of rugged mobile computers installed to support enterprise mobility applications in “harsh” environments fail per year. Conversely, the annual failure rate for commercial grade devices in similar harsh environments rockets to 36 percent. End users need to anticipate device failure rates into their deployment plan. The critical issue is effectively managing failure rate and downtime to minimize impact on the operation.
Handheld Mobile or Tablet PC?
The key to choose between the two is whether or not the user has to work while standing or walking around. A mobile has a significant advantage over a tablet PC by being able to be used while the user is truly mobile. When a pen tablet is used at a desk in a mini-dock, its capability is essentially identical to that of an ultra-portable notebook.
There are two types of Tablet PCs: slates and convertibles. A slate-style device is in essence an LCD with a built-in PC motherboard and hard drive. This type of Tablet PC is most frequently used by health-care workers and others in specialized fields. A convertible device can be used like a slate or, when the screen is swiveled and raised, like a traditional notebook with a keyboard. The display lays on top of the keyboard when it is used in slate mode.
Being able to write on the Tablet PC's screen with a stylus--which works like the Graffiti handwriting recognition on a Palm OS device--makes "all the difference”. While at a home site, user uses the Tablet PC's pen-based input to fill in forms and add drawings to digital photographs that he takes during inspections. At the office, he plugs the Tablet PC into its docking station, which connects it to an external monitor and keyboard that lets him use the computer as he would a desktop PC.
However, with mobile devices becoming more and more sophisticated, they certainly bring advantages when it comes to harsh field environment such as accident sites, property damage sites. They are much handier and are always connected. Few of the points where mobile can score over table PC are
- Cost of Mobile device based on its capability can be lower than tablet PC cost and may be important factor if it has to be rolled out on massive scale.
- Besides Data, use of Voice or SMS services used from mobile device may become user friendly & time saving.
- Inbuilt camera feature of Mobile which will enable field force person to capture various field details in seconds for select applications.
- SFA/FFA Mobile Applications supported by GPS & Navigation will increase the Field employee’s performance by assisting him for better route optimization.
The next important consideration is device platform. Microsoft's Windows Mobile platform and Research in Motion's (RIM) Blackberry have emerged to dominate the landscape of enterprise mobility. While Blackberry devices are generally used more prevalently for mobile messaging, Windows mobile devices are better positioned for an expanded suite of mobilized enterprise applications.
From a device selection perspective, it might be considered beneficial to have the bundled applications, such as web-browsing and email, Pocket word, excel etc. The Windows Mobile platform offers a more consistent experience between devices.
Wireless Connectivity options
Connectivity options play an important role in device selection. Some of the enterprise application provides offline functionalities and need to synchronies large data once the connectivity is made available. Choices range from very limited connectivity in the base models to highly connectable devices at the top end. Within each class of device already outlined, i.e. rugged, commercial, Pocket PC, RIM etc, the full range of connectivity options are available.
Connectivity options include Infra-red, Serial Connection, Bluetooth, WiFi, GPRS etc.
Practically all models will have an infra-red and serial connection available. The serial connection may be via cable or via cradle. Bluetooth may be useful for connecting with a mobile phone, headset, or some other personal devices. When used with a mobile phone, Bluetooth can be used for remote data synchronization.
WiFi connectivity is useful in a controlled environment, such as a warehouse, that can be fully covered by wireless access points. This method offers cheap, reliable, and fast synchronization.
A packet-switched network such as GPRS, that offers “always-on” functionality may connect to a static IP address at the synchronisation gateway, or again through a VPN, thus offering better security. It is important to note that it is possible for synchronisation to occur without the need for any wireless connectivity. Users may simply connect via a cable or a cradle hosted by a computer that has a connection to the synchronisation gateway.
Peripheral Device support
The selected device may require built in functionality to support the peripheral devices such as Barcode scanners, Printers, GPS receivers, Cameras, Magnetic stripe readers, RFID readers etc. The SDIO slot, Compact Flash slots, or other expansion slots may be used either for memory expansion or for connecting the peripheral device.
QWERTY Keyboard or Stylus input
Device may feature the keyboard and/or stylus for entering data. Keyboards may be numeric or complete QWERTY. Some devices offer handwriting recognition and transcription as an alternative.
The choice between an actual keyboard and stylus input depends a lot on the design of the user interface for the enterprise mobile application. Application user interfaces should tend towards using drop-down lists or numeric-only fields, in place for simple text-entry fields. If there are a great number of text-entry fields appearing in the application, then an actual keyboard might be preferable.
Battery life depends on the battery technology and on the quality of the battery itself. How long device would function between battery recharges will depend on the typical usage patterns of the device. Heavy consumers of battery power are the device backlight, and radio circuitry. Any device running Bluetooth, WLAN, or a mobile phone will require a radio to be operating in the device. Of these, Bluetooth is the lightest consumer of power, due to its short range. It is important to consider what will happen to a device, should the battery become fully exhausted.
Some devices offer a back-up battery. In this case, when the main battery has been completely drained, a message is displayed to the user, telling them that the back-up battery is now being used. In this way, no data is lost, and the user is advised to recharge the main battery as soon as possible.
If all battery power for the device fails, then normally the data and even the applications in the device memory would be lost. However, some vendors offer non-volatile memory. This type of memory retains its data when power is lost, and remains intact during even a hard reset. Some devices will feature this type of memory internally.
Another way of keeping data beyond power loss is to save it on SD memory cards. Applications may access the card just like another folder.
The other considerations for device selection include size, weight, accessories, and even button placement on the device. This area is often underestimated in how important it can be in the overall success of a mobile solution.
By taking into consideration all of the factors discussed here, it should be possible to arrive at a shortlist of devices that are suited to a particular mobile solution. Lastly, Don’t forget to lab test the short listed device using a prototype of the enterprise mobile application.