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Putting Wolverine into Smartphones

The market backlash against consumer phones for industrial worker
by Mary Brittain-White, CEO of Retriever Communications

My countryman Hugh Jackman is by all accounts an extremely humane and witty man; however, his Wolverine character is all testosterone fueled attitude and demonstrable biceps. This contrast is seen in buying choices every day: do you buy the ecological hybrid car or the ground crunching Ute?

The answer is simply fit for purpose; however, consumer trends and fashion often get in the way and markets are led astray. So was the case with the mass abandonment of ruggedized mobile devices for field workers and the rise of iPhones and iPads for industrial workers.

This market avalanche was led by corporate icons: IBM aligned with Apple and still refuses to develop on anything except for the Apple operating system, hardware companies like Honeywell developed ruggedized sleeves for Apple devices to give them the functionality and robustness they lacked, corporate CIOs made decisions that only Apple devices were allowed on their network. So successful was the push in North America that Apple now owns more than 70 percent of the corporate mobile market.

But what is great for a suited executive, office worker or IT architect, played very badly for the field guy who was fixing the water pipes, servicing the air-conditioning unit or surveying compliance on the gas field. In the bright light of the outdoors an iPad is unreadable, the battery life of an iPhone under constant mobile data usage completely inadequate and the cost of the constant upgrades and field breakages unsustainable.

'Fit for purpose' had been forgotten and single technology platform and fashion had won out. Still nothing in IT is truer than the statement "The End User Rules, OK?".

In the past 12 months, the top ruggedized device manufacturers like Zebra are quoting that 40 percent of the U.S. industrial fleets that initially went with Apple moving back.

What is the motivation of these fleets to change?

  • Paramount is control: consumer devices insist on operating system updates, often throwing the corporate application on its ear as it has not been tested in this environment. For example, last year Microsoft changed how sound was used in applications in a simple unannounced OS upgrade, the affected applications all went silent….

  • Return on investment is easier with rugged devices: the manufacturer offers all-encompassing maintenance and ongoing supply of the hardware, which allows a fleet to be consistently in the field for two or three years. In contrast, consumer devices have a retail shelf life of six to nine months after which you need to move to the new model, if damaged you need to move to the new model, if you grow your fleet with new employees you need to buy the new model….

  • BYOD in industrial settings was declared dead by IDC in 2016. Multi-platform was seen as a technology must have, however reality is that it is an operational nightmare. Field staff have devices older than their Grandma, worn batteries fail mid work sessions, sub-contractor data plans that expire at the worst times…. meaning that BYOD strategies have been relegated to part-time or sub-contractor labor strategies.

  • Industrial innovation in rugged devices is superior: under the stress of consumer smartphones, vendors have improved their game. Specifically in pricing and new innovative capabilities targeted at corporate needs. For example, Honeywell has invested strongly in getting improved barcode reading accuracy under difficult environments like full sun and barcodes under glass, while Zebra has moved into new services such as dimensioning which allows sizing of objects to be as simple as pointing your arm rather than a guy doing the measuring.
So, it appears that a fit-for-purpose repositioning is occurring in the smartphone market and it is moving at some speed. Behind this is a hard lesson now learned: total cost of ownership is far more than the initial purchase price.

So, if you're having a dinner party, ask Hugh, but if you need to perform outside the office in the often-harsh conditions of the environment — then we need a Wolverine ruggedness in the hand-held computing to deliver a result at the end of the day.

After 24 years in the wireless data industry, of which 20 years are with Retriever, Mary Brittain-White has established herself as a thought leader in the area of wireless field automation. Prior to founding Retriever, she worked for a Silicon Valley based Motorola subsidiary, RadioMail, which pioneered wireless email. From University, she joined IBM and over a 14 year career there held Sales and Marketing executive management roles. She has a Bachelor of Economics from Sydney University and a post graduate Executive Development program from Melbourne University.