Whither the Enterprise Rugged Device? (Part 3)

In Part 1, I discussed the pros and cons of enterprise rugged devices.

In Part 2, I compared and contrasted enterprise rugged devices with the leading consumer devices available today, with a focus on use for industrial scanning applications.

Here in Part 3, I’ll draw some conclusions and discuss potential future product directions for TrackAbout.

The Microsoft Virtual Monopoly

Before we get to the conclusions of this blog series, I would like to discuss something that has puzzled me a bit.  It’s the virtual monopoly that Microsoft seems to have achieved in the rugged device space.  Monopoly is a bit of a provocative word to use, especially where Microsoft is concerned.  And I don’t mean to insinuate anything about how the situation came about.  There were very few players, and Microsoft stuck with it and won.

Symbol SPT1800

TrackAbout has borne witness to the changes in this space over the last ten years.  Our first mobile solution targeted the Symbol/Motorola SPT1800 line of devices, which ran PalmOS 4.  Though Palm is twice dead now, we still have customers who continue to use this very device today.  Talk about long-term support!  I personally spent several weeks hacking at our software trying to get it to run on a Palm Treo 650 with a Socket Mobile SD-card plug-in scanner.  Good times.  This platform served us well for a time, and it wasn’t until a few years later that we began supporting devices that ran Windows CE and Windows Mobile.  In the intervening time, the PalmOS platform died, leaving Windows the sole survivor.

Rugged Android?

I find it disappointing that none of the major enterprise rugged manufacturers offer Android devices.  Android is supposedly a free operating system, whereas Windows Embedded requires a license fee.  I say Android is supposedly free because it recently came to light that due to some patent-related court decisions, Microsoft has somehow found a way to get paid anyway whenever Android devices are sold.  Patent issues could be one more reason manufacturers haven’t adopted the platform, but the events are fairly recent news.

Now, this isn’t to say you can’t find any rugged Android devices, just not one made by any of the majors.

  • In May 2009, Trimble introduced a rugged scanner called the Nomad.  The device appears designed to run Windows Mobile first, Android second.
  • Similarly, in January 2010, Bluebird updated their Windows Mobile Pidion BIP-6000 device to add an Android option.
  • In May 2011, Casio, maker of rugged feature phones since 2006, introduced the G’zOne Commando. No scanner, though.

And that’s all I’ve been able to find.

Rugged iOS?

We’ll never see an enterprise rugged iOS device, unless Apple makes it themselves, which they won’t.

What the OEMs Say

I’ve spoken with several employees “in the know” at Motorola Solutions, Intermec, and Psion.  None had plans to adopt any operating systems other than Windows Embedded for the next year to three years (depending on the manufacturer).  I’ve cobbled together this list of reasons “why” from my conversations:

  • There’s a large installed base of customers who’ve built solutions on Windows Embedded. They aren’t interested in rebuilding what they have or fragmenting their development efforts.
  • No large customers have come forward demanding something different. Rather, customers are calling for a reaffirmation of the manufacturer’s commitment to Windows Embedded.
  • Windows Embedded is “good enough” to get the job done.
  • The manufacturers don’t have the resources to tackle a new OS.
  • The pace of change of the newer OSes makes it hard to keep up.
  • New custom drivers and software development kits (SDKs) would have to be written to provide support for the unique hardware in rugged devices like barcode scanners and RFID readers.
  • There is no compelling business reason to change.

Maybe next year?

Consumer Market vs. Enterprise Market

To understand why the enterprise space is the way it is, it helps to compare markets.

Though I suspect enterprise device profit margins are significantly higher than consumer margins, there’s more money in consumer devices overall.  The consumer market is enormous and completely dwarfs the enterprise market. In addition to device sales, manufacturers can get a cut of app sales; e-book, video, music and other content sales; and in-app purchases.  To put it in perspective, Apple has been dancing with Exxon in recent days, trading the #1 spot with a market cap of around $340B USD. By comparison, the market cap of Motorola Solutions, Intermec, Psion and Honeywell combined is under $50B USD. This is obviously a gross comparison as Apple doesn’t just sell devices, and neither do the other companies. But the point is that the consumer space and the enterprise space stand miles apart and have vastly different priorities.

The consumer device market is highly competitive, as evidenced by both the rapid pace of innovation and also escalating patent litigation. It values low prices and carrier subsidies; a constant stream of new products; smooth-running and elegant user interfaces; social media and messaging; gaming; media consumption; access to a legion of disposable apps and a handful of good ones; and the biannual placing of a phone call.

By comparison, the enterprise market is considerably more tame. It values platform stability; backward compatibility; integration with other enterprise systems; ease of device management; customer support and rapid response; long product lifetime; and return on investment. The enterprise market is often a distant follower of the consumer market.  If your work computer is still running Windows XP or you’re browsing with Internet Explorer 6, then you’re familiar with the phenomenon.

Enterprise Rugged Isn’t Going Away

The conclusion at the end of Part 2 was that consumer devices aren’t quite ready to fully replace enterprise rugged devices for industrial scanning applications like TrackAbout.  Let’s revisit the most important reasons:

  • Lack of robust scanning solutions with a user-friendly, low hassle factor.
  • Lack of the kind of support that can be had from enterprise rugged OEMs to fix hardware and software flaws.
  • Increased risk due to the rapid pace of technology change, plus fragmentation.
  • Not rugged, and adding a rugged case negates the ability to use an extended battery.

“But,” you say, “these consumer platforms are so compelling, ubiquitous and powerful!  Surely, there’s a path forward!” To you I say, “Ubiquitous.  That’s a big word.”

Why We Love Consumer Devices

TrackAbout is very interested in developing for consumer mobile devices.  Here’s why:

  • People are already carrying them. Seems a waste not to use them.
  • Customers and prospects expect a modern software company to deliver solutions on these platforms. These technologies are a sales driver for TrackAbout. Sales are good.
  • The Microsoft Windows Embedded monopoly in the enterprise rugged device space can’t last forever (please?).
  • The limitations of today’s consumer devices won’t always exist.
  • TrackAbout is dedicated to keeping pace with technology. We use these devices in our personal lives every day. They’re fun to use, and we would love to find a way to make them work for our customers in a way that matters.
  • We haven’t focused much on tablets in this series, but iOS and Android tablets, being larger, are easier to read and use. Their adoption can accelerate work while reducing errors. There are also opportunities to deploy our existing mobile software on Windows tablets running either Windows Embedded or Windows XP/Vista/7.
  • Something has to counterbalance the loss of productivity due to Angry Birds.  Let’s make it TrackAbout!

Sweet Spots

To take advantage of consumer devices, we have to identify and target sweet spots where they make the most sense.  Today, TrackAbout’s mobile software offerings are primarily used for data collection in the field, often in harsh environments. Data collection means a high volume of scanning of barcodes or RFID tags. Taking into account what we know, I see at least two potential sweet spots for consumer devices:

  1. Accept the use of a Bluetooth scanner, but only for temperature-controlled environments and only for users who are less likely to damage the equipment and be frustrated by its shortcomings.
  2. Target business users whose roles are less about data collection and more about data querying. Since TrackAbout already provides a robust web site targeting these users, we’d be looking for places where convenient mobile access provides a big win.

Conclusion

TrackAbout remains committed to exploring and delivering technology solutions that work great for our customers. We believe strongly in partnering and collaborating with our customers to develop ideas and solutions.  We invite all our customers who are interested in taking advantage of the potential of consumer devices to please reach out to us to contribute your ideas to our own.

Larry Silverman
Chief Technology Officer
TrackAbout, Inc.