Commentary | IT Matters

Why Innovation Matters for Rugged Mobile Technology

Tags: Logistics I.T.

Tim Eusterman, is Senior Director, Industry Marketing, Intermec Technologies, 281-381-2449

The proliferation of smartphones and tablets is giving many logistics IT and operations leaders pause. They are questioning what these mobile computing trends mean to their operations, and their potential impact on traditional rugged mobile computing for supply chain and logistics applications.

Behind the innovation in smartphones and tablets is a deep understanding of how people desire to use these devices — known as the use case. A great example of this is the dramatic ease-of-use improvement created by these consumer devices. The touchscreen-based user interface eliminates physical keys and provides a full-screen display, giving users a completely new tactile and visual experience.

The key to delivering this new interface performance is embracing the fact that the use case determines design. This is exactly what product and design engineering teams in the rugged mobile computing business have done for years. Digging deep into the workflow use cases for logistics activities helps to inform design, delivering unmatched performance and total cost of ownership. But now, these design teams can ride the explosion of consumer device technologies to drive an entirely new round of innovation for rugged mobile solutions.

Innovations from consumer products we can expect to see in rugged solutions include:

Chip architecture. These microprocessors enable devices to run — and more importantly, not run — specific applications using a portion of the chip’s capability. This means design engineers can use an array of specialized processors that can be turned off when not required, delivering high-performance applications with extreme battery efficiency.

Specialized hardware accelerators and controllers. These new controllers run video cores, radios, and Internet and graphics processing. They allow the combination of the above capabilities to run with the required complement of rugged technology solution elements — such as advanced imaging and barcode scanning, voice recognition and speech output processing, RFID, GPS, and location sensors — by leveraging the same chip and hardware accelerator performance.

Operating systems. New-generation operating systems — including Apple’s IOS, Google’s Android, and Windows 8 from Microsoft — are designed to enable all the capabilities of the new-generation chipsets, providing hardware and application developers access to the capabilities of the core microprocessor architecture in a stable, predictable, and repeatable fashion. Because Apple’s IOS is proprietary and is not shared with other hardware providers, the choice for the rugged mobile community is between Android and Windows 8. There are many opinions as to how this picture will unfold. But Android’s development history has not created enough consistency and backwards compatibility to support multi-generation hardware designs in enterprise class applications. Microsoft has a long history of building and supporting mobile OS solutions for enterprise-class rugged mobile computing hardware and applications. Ultimately, the market will decide whether one or both of these operating systems will be used in mission-critical logistics workflows, but the direction is clear: the new world order of mobile computing operating systems is here to stay.

HTML 5. The promise of HTML 5 is to allow effective cross-platform application development not locked to a specific mobile OS, and provide access to local peripherals and off-line execution beyond the browser container. Clearly, this is a requirement for mission-critical mobile applications, and not one that browsers today can handle. Whether HTML 5 will overcome this and become the ultimate abstraction layer between mobile operating system and host application is to be determined. If realized, HTML5 may buffer the IT community from some costs associated with supporting multiple hardware platforms used to deliver specific capabilities within the larger enterprise computing ecosystem.

Key Considerations

When considering consumer and rugged mobile computer, IT and logistics managers need to consider the following questions:

  • How long does the product have to run on one charge?
  • Can you drop the computer — and if so how far, onto what, and how many times is reasonable?
  • Do your workers wear gloves?
  • Do you want to predict failures before the shift starts?
  • Do you want a single battery charging system for all form factors?
  • How long do you plan to own the products, what new applications will you add during the product’s lifetime, and how do you plan to manage the computers once they are deployed?

All these questions go to use case. Your data is your currency. Without it — for a minute, hour, day, or longer — how long can your business stand to be down? That is why use case matters, and rugged, purpose-built mobile computing solutions will always have a place in the logistics environment.

A new generation of rugged mobility innovation is upon us, enabled in large part by consumer technologies. What a great time to pause, consider your options, and move forward.