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How do the three main OSes compare for rugged mobile computers?

Apple iOS is losing ground to its competitors for good reason, but the rise of mobility management tools and HTML5 make the device OS choice less crucial than in the past.

As manufacturing and supply chain-focused organizations update and invest in new rugged mobile computers, the three main mobile operating systems -- Google's Android, Apple's iOS and Microsoft Windows -- all come with wide ranges of pros and cons for the needs of manufacturers.

"One time on the factory floor, no one would use anything but a ruggedized device, [and] people might have spent upwards of $5,000 on an industrial device that could withstand shock, dirt, vibration and the rigors of a factory floor," said Craig Resnick, vice president of consulting at ARC Advisory Group.

Then, as people started using tablets and smartphones, he said, the rugged stance softened to accept less expensive tablets and smartphones in certain situations. "Unless it's an area where there's an issue of intrinsic safety, like a gaseous environment where a spark could start a fire, manufacturers let those devices on the factory floor for things like visualization -- not machine control, but to be able to see what's going on in the machine or to get some [key performance indicators]," Resnick explained.

This is where iOS comes into play. The Apple operating system only runs on the vendor's iPhones, iPods, and iPads, all of which are consumer-grade devices designed first for consumers and second for everything else. IOS and its apps offer a great user interface for information-focused apps, but the Apple-only hardware limits their actual utility in rugged environments.

First, iOS devices need ruggedized cases. Then, depending on the task, they might need an integrated scanner or input device. In addition, Apple's design aesthetic leads to thin devices with relatively small batteries. These batteries are not swappable, much less hot-swappable while the device is still running. Plus, after a year or more of heavy use, their effective battery life begins to fade.

Consequently, in a manufacturing environment, the utility of iOS for rugged mobile computers is hampered by the limited available hardware.

Once again we can focus on the right device instead of worrying about the code.
Jay Kamradtassistant manager of information systems, Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing

Android and Windows, on the other hand, are licensed and available for use by third-party OEMs who can create purpose-built devices. These devices have rugged features built in, including industrial tech features such as high-speed scanners. Because these aren't aimed at consumers first, batteries can be larger and the cases thicker and stronger.

The ultimate result is that the hardware form factors in which Android and mobile Windows OS versions can be used lead to greater potential utility on rugged mobile computers in manufacturing environments.

The role of native apps on rugged mobile computers

Just a few years ago, many enterprise application development efforts focused on choosing a distinct mobile OS. Why? One big reason was that mobile apps written as native apps tended to perform better. But now, mobile processors and communication networks are much faster, and the advent of HTML5 has allowed developers to create cross-platform web apps. The advantages of a particular mobile OS native app are mitigated by having more general-purpose apps.

"The majority of industrial automation software is written in Windows, and because of HTML5, you can now essentially display Microsoft-written software on iOS or Android devices," Resnick said. "That has really made a huge difference because people were not typically writing industrial automation software on iOS or Android. HTML5 has really helped close the loops to help accelerate these device trends."

Control and security features can tilt the balance

Another issue with iOS is that it was first designed for individuals. Apple has made strides in enterprise device management, but, typically, organizations end up using third-party mobile device management (MDM) software, which makes implementing rugged mobile computers for manufacturing more complicated than using previous generations of Windows-based mobile devices. In a manufacturing environment, this means that the operations department might need more resources from IT to implement and manage iOS-based ruggedized devices.

What about Android? The Google mobile OS can be implemented by OEMs in a wide variety of devices. The downside is that organizations can end up running versions of "Android" that are fractured or use an inconsistent set of code bases. This is not exactly a big deal, because many manufacturers consider rugged mobile devices to be tools that are used for specific tasks that might not change for years. In fact, a tool that is doing its job doesn't have to be upgraded just because a pretty new OS version comes along. This interest in using a mobile device for a specific use again and again for years is one of the reasons Windows CE has lasted so long in manufacturing organizations: If it's not broken, leave it alone.

The downside to Android's flexibility is that managing security becomes more difficult.

"One thing that makes the enterprise stay away from 'consumer' Android and come to Zebra for their rugged Android devices is their security concerns," said Jim Hilton, global principal of manufacturing and field mobility for Zebra Technologies. "Manufacturers come to us for our security layers."

Enterprise mobile software to the rescue

As it turns out, the rise of enterprise mobility management tools and application development engines is making the mobile OS choice for rugged mobile computers easier than ever before.

Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing Corp. U.S.A. (KMM) manufactures all-terrain and utility vehicles, personal watercraft and passenger rail cars. KMM used LongRange, which is a native mobile app development tool from LANSA that can generate native apps -- for example, using the Swift programming language for iOS or Java for Android. KMM originally created apps for iPads and iPods that saved the company more than $3,000 a day in labor costs. The custom apps let KMM inventory specialists better manage part availability in the warehouse and on the manufacturing floor.

KMM originally developed the apps for iPad and iPod several years ago because, at the time, Apple was a clear mobility leader. 

"We are still using the original iPad 2 devices purchased in 2012," said Jay Kamradt, assistant manager of information systems at KMM. "We have not had issues with the devices, and they have been very stable and reliable in our manufacturing conditions moving anywhere in the plant. We equipped them with Ballistic rugged cases and have had only one damaged due to hitting a table on the corner of the screen."

Now, in addition to the iPad running iOS, KMM is also using Zebra TC70 devices that run Android.

"When we first introduced LongRange to our production workers, our only need was for a tablet," Kamradt explained. "However, we quickly realized we needed to replace our aging green-screen scan guns with something more modern. After months of trying to get the Apple iPod to work in our environment [KMM experienced battery life and Wi-Fi connection issues], we needed to switch platforms and looked to the TC70 device running Android."

To deploy its apps, which are managed from a single code base through the LongRange software, KMM was able to download the LongRange Android app from Google Play for the TC70.

"We had the peace of mind of being able to make the switch without making a change to one line of code or needing to hire or train a developer to write the code for native Android," Kamradt said.

What's next for KMM? Surprisingly, yet another rugged mobile OS.

"Due to the age and the lack of enterprise management of the iPads, we are looking to move our tablet devices to a Windows device," Kamradt said.

"Once again we can focus on the right device instead of worrying about the code or the resources to get it going," he added.

Next Steps

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This was last published in December 2016

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