Choosing the Ideal Mobile OS Architecture for your Rugged Handhelds and Tablets

When it came to rugged devices, it used to be there was only one dominant mobile operating system (OS) choice: some version of Windows — Mobile, Embedded, or CE. However, with the emergence of new mobile platforms and Microsoft’s delay in rolling out its own new mobile platform, rugged device users have multiple options. Selecting a mobile OS architecture will affect device migration strategies, user interfaces, security, and other elements of a mobile deployment, and there are pros and cons to each platform, but your application and environment should guide the process.

Below are some of the aspects of each mobile operating system that may affect its utility within your rugged device application.

Windows:For users with legacy CE or Windows Mobile deployments, Microsoft has effectively ended any further development of those specific platforms. While hardware vendors and resellers like omniQ will continue to support the devices, don’t expect any further innovation or development in that segment.

Instead, Microsoft has shifted its focus to Windows 10, which supports apps across all of its device platforms. Windows 10 Embedded IoT is a good mobile operating system choice for customers that rely heavily on Microsoft for security and application functions. The full version of Windows 10 is a good choice for tablet-based applications in the field that require full Windows support — in essence, it allows the tablet to act as a full-blow field workstation/PC.

Apple iOS:There has been increasing activity in the enterprise around Apple’s iOS devices (iPhones, iPads) in part because the user interface is so familiar to employees, and also because the devices tend to be less expensive. However, iOS is not a good fit for many rugged warehouse or field-based applications.

If a company has opted to standardize on Apple platforms, that will limit the range of rugged options available. There are currently no rugged iOS devices, although there are cases/covers available that can provide some measure of protection. These devices are also not well suited to applications that require heavy or intense barcode scanning without additional accessories.

Android:The Android OS is presently the dominant choice in the smartphone market, and is quickly gaining ground in the rugged device space. It combines the ease of use and familiarity of personal phones, similar to iOS, with a more diverse selection of available rugged hardware from several manufacturers.

More business-friendly features (like Android for Work) have made the platform easier to integrate with line-of-business applications. There is also a wider universe of available applications that support the platform and a large group of developers. New security enhancements have also made it more attractive, allowing careful segmentation of “personal data” and “corporate business data” on bring your own device (BYOD) and corporately owned, personally enabled (COPE) devices.

However, different manufacturers support different versions of Android, which can lead to compatibility issues when it comes to support for specific applications on some devices. Managing the capabilities of the version of OS is just as important as which OS variety.

Ultimately, the company has to make its mobile operating system decision based on what is best suited to meet their objectives. If enhanced security is required, that will affect how files are shared or how users are connected back to the corporate network. The need to support legacy applications can also affect this decision.

It’s important to be aware of the version of the mobile operating system supported by the manufacturer you work with and the software systems you need to support. That’s why it is important to work with a manufacturer like Zebra Technologies. Zebra has a variety of handheld and tablets to choose from – like the TC8000 or the ET50/ET55 – and can offer the support you need regardless of your situation. If you have a legacy application designed for older Windows-based mobile devices, you will need to work out a migration path even if you opt to move to Windows 10, because the applications will need to be re-architected. That means the cost to move to Android might not be any higher than updating Windows environments – the decision will come down to features, functions, and security.

It is best to work with a solution integrator that has in-depth experience with the various operating systems, compatibility, security and device management systems to know the best options for your specific objectives.

Mobility Warehouse and Distribution

Technology in the Warehouse: Consumer vs. Ruggedized Devices

Because mobile devices are so ubiquitous in our culture, it’s often difficult to remember that mobile computers were once limited to warehouse and other industrial applications. Some of the earliest truly mobile devices were deployed for inventory and warehouse management decades ago.

These ruggedized devices are the workhorses of the mobile computing world, but many users have begun to evaluate less expensive, consumer-grade devices for their warehouse applications. In most cases, this is the wrong strategy. While cheaper phones or tablets may provide some initial cost savings, their long-term total cost of ownership (TCO) is often much higher than that of traditional ruggedized devices.

Architecture: Many companies use legacy warehouse software that may have been in place for as long as a decade, and most warehouse management solutions are designed for Windows-based devices. There is increasing support for Android devices (which are available in rugged form factors) but quite limited use of Apple’s iOS in these environments. Most ruggedized devices are also capable of terminal emulation to access these legacy applications, meaning they can duplicate the performance of older devices used with legacy warehouse applications.

Durability: Ruggedized devices are built to withstand shock, vibration, drops to concrete floors, and exposure to dirt, dust, moisture, and chemicals. They are less likely to fail in a warehouse environment than a consumer device, and are much more likely to survive the rough use they will experience. There are some rugged computers that can even withstand being run over by a truck. This durability means fewer failures and less downtime and lost productivity on the warehouse floor.

Device Management: Large mobile computing deployments require robust mobile device management (MDM) solutions in order to make it easier to deploy software updates from a central location, to provision new devices, and to troubleshoot and fix devices that may be spread out over a large building or campus, or across multiple facilities. While some consumer devices also support these solutions, many phones and tablets do not, or they include security features that make it difficult to centrally provision certain applications. Ruggedized devices include support for most MDM solutions and traditional IT provisioning and management approaches.  The rugged devices also provide additional targeted information about device health and user activity that do not exist in consumer-grade devices.

Enterprise Application Requirements: Most consumer devices can’t handle the requirements of high-volume, enterprise-grade warehouse applications. Ruggedized devices have faster, more accurate barcode scanners; longer battery life; support for multiple wireless networking options; screens that can be read easily in both daylight and dark conditions; enterprise-level security features; and additional options to support RFID scanning, GPS, and other technologies. For fast paced, time-critical applications, a camera-scanner simply does not perform accurately and fast enough, decreasing worker productivity. Consumer devices simply can’t compete because they were designed for much lighter usage and different applications.

Security: Ruggedized devices also provide enhanced security features to allow lock-down of applications so users only access what they need to access and prevents hacking into the device or the company’s network.

Safety:  Rugged devices can also provide extra levels of safety in hazardous areas, such as volatile chemicals.   Consumer grade devices are often not even permitted anywhere near these areas.

Consistency:  With new versions of consumer phones and operating system updates occurring annually, it is challenging to provide a consistent set of hardware and software across all devices in an environment for an extended period of time.  Mismatched hardware and software with even subtle differences in configuration and operation can cause confusion with users and unpredictable performance and ultimately errors and inefficiency.

Total Cost of Ownership: The initial purchase price is just one component of the TCO. You also have to take into account the shorter lifecycle (two years, compared to roughly five years), high replacement costs, more frequent device failures, and the cost of employee downtime and lost productivity. Consumer devices may also require separate peripherals for barcode scanning, or protective cases to improve their durability. This adds to the overall TCO.

In fact, 2013 research from industry analyst VDC indicates that consumer smartphones can increase TCO by as much as 51% while reducing ROI by 34%.

The low cost of consumer devices is tempting for companies trying to control their budgets. But deploying consumer-grade devices in the warehouse will ultimately result in much higher replacement costs in addition to expensive downtime and lost productivity. Using ruggedized devices in the warehouse will provide a lower TCO and a higher return on investment.