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It’s tempting, isn’t it? You’re extending your SAP backend to workers in the field, that are let’s say repairing white goods in customer’s homes or delivering fresh cakes to shops or something similar. When it comes to the device selection, an iPhone or other comparable smartphone or even an iPad is less than half the initial cost of a ruggedized “mobile computer”. All of these devices have the required connectivity built in, most can read barcodes with the built-in camera and they are generally much sleeker anyway so why bother with clunky rugged mobile computers any more?

Analysts and – of course – the vendors that sell rugged mobile devices insist that the rugged versions are significantly cheaper from a total cost of ownership perspective and well worth the higher initial expense. These calculations typically include the initial acquisition cost, end-user training, replacement cost, technical support, upgrades and the cost of downtime caused by non-operating devices.

In most mission critical mobile scenarios I would see the downtime cost as the main TCO driver as it can very quickly exceed the initial procurement cost. Now if the device needs to operate in wet, dusty or otherwise adverse conditions a rugged mobile device will be better equipped to withstand these and therefore reduce downtime which in turn reduces TCO. As a result in such cases it’s easy to answer the question above with a “yes, you do”.

Apart from the environmental conditions however, the other big threat to the wellbeing of a mobile device typically is … its user. Rugged devices try to counter this threat with additional robustness so that they will withstand being roughly handled or dropped. If the device isn’t as easy to destroy the logic goes, it needs fewer replacements, results in less downtime and thereby reduces TCO. So, again “yes, you do”, but wait a minute…

The alternative approach that is lately being suggested is to make the user care about the mobile device. Now how would that work?

In a general drive to cut cost, more companies think about moving from “company liable devices” to “individual liable devices”, i.e. giving employees the freedom to choose which mobile device they want to use and let them buy the device – sometimes subsidized by the company, sometimes not. There are all sorts of challenges attached to this model, but it will certainly increase the affection that users have for their mobile devices and thereby increase its reliability.

Thinking this through, I wonder how would a rugged company liable device compare against a consumer grade individual liable device in the TCO calculation? I don’t think the maths has been done on this yet but we’d have to approach it from a completely different angle as it’s no longer down to comparing individual device models but different general approaches.

My personal conclusion would be that if companies procure mobile devices for blue-collar type scenarios a well chosen rugged device will most likely result in lower total cost of ownership. In order to reap the benefits from consumer grade devices in such scenarios we’ll need to look at additional ways to incentivise employees to take care of their mobile device. I believe, so called “bring your own device” (BYOD) schemes will become more common place and we need to start preparing for them from a mobile application perspective as well. Mobile enterprise application platforms and mobile device management solutions like SUP and Afaria from Sybase will play an important role in this. But let’s leave that as a topic for another day.

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7 Comments

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  1. Jim Spath
    Steffen: Very interesting postulation – that enterprises could save money by not deploying machine, simply leveraging hardware such as mobile devices that employees already possess.  And that this ownership could lead to improved productivity, as employees continue to work well into non-business hours.  Perhaps you are right, though as you say, some hard numbers would benefit this thread.  If I had some, I’m not sure I could reveal them.  I will comment in general terms:
    *) Originally, only “approved” mobile devices below a certain cost were allowed to be used for business.  Over the years, as individuals bought specific devices, whether Blackberry, iPhone, or Android, the policy was relaxed.  This was coupled with improved back-end technology for email (read: ActiveSync). The cost ceilings endure, I’m sure, though I haven’t asked for a new phone in several years :-).
    *) On the other hand, when connection to enterprise servers was by modem and terminal emulation, any old PC worked.  But as GUIs and VPNs grew, so did virus risk to the company network. This means that non-corporate PCs are generally frowned upon as supported devices. The future, though, is headed toward web-only apps, with appropriate authentication, and maybe a smattering of data conduits.
    *) The latter technology, with corporate data warehouse information drop shipped to a small device easily forgotten in a coffee shop, is the new keep-security-officers-up-at-night fear.  “This device will self destruct in 30 seconds” doesn’t seem such a bad idea after all!

    Jim

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    1. Steffen Schwark Post author
      Hi Jim,

      Thanks for your comments and I agree that this approach raises a number of new issues. However I see that the “bring your own device” theme is already gaining ground in the white collar space and as always – some will fight it and some will embrace it. For me the question is under which circumstances can it be reasonable to apply the same principles for blue collar scenarios, which have been traditionally equiped with company-paid rugged devices?

      From my point of view at least the following has to be true
      1) the mobile application supports a wide range of mobile devices
      2) the company remains in full control of the application and the data at any point
      3) the operating environment is not overly harsh
      4) the users care about their personal mobile device

      Any more?

      Generally we can hit at conditions 1) and 2) with technology solutions, while conditions 3) and 4) will be much harder to quantify in an up-front TCO comparison.

      Steffen

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  2. Kevin Benedict
    Great article!  Perhaps companies can agree to purchase a ruggedized case for an employee’s personal mobile device to help protect it. Maybe add device insurance, etc.  This seems like a reasonable approach if the device will be supplied by the individual, but used for work.
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  3. Graham Robinson
    Good post.

    Can I ask about the availability of intrinsically safe mobile devices? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intrinsic_safety

    More than 10 years ago I had customers asking about mobile devices that could be safely used in places like oil refineries, etc. At the time I couldn’t find any suitable devices available.

    Does anyone have experience with these devices that they can share? Availability, costs, etc.

    Cheers
    Graham Robbo

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    1. Kailasom Krishnan
      Hi Graham,
      We in our enterprise (oil & gas industry) have been using intrinsically safe, explosion proof, ATEX certified ecom i.roc handheld devices for more than two years for mobile inspection recording. The device is a bit heavy (more than 500 g). We had initial problems with the touchscreen but the manufacturer rectified it. But it serves the overall purpose well.
      Cheers
      Krish
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  4. Kevin Benedict
    Yes, most industrial grade handheld computer manufacturers (Psion Teklogix, Motorola, Intermec) have a model or two designed for working in dangerous environments like mines, refineries and other flamable areas.
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