Do we really need rugged mobile devices?
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.