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With ruggedized devices, how much does the mobile OS even matter?

Adapting to an environment for a specific purpose is the main criterion for ruggedized devices, but that could start to change with more capable versions of Android and Windows.

Manufacturing and supply chain-focused organizations have been bucking mobile OS trends for years -- and they still are. They're still using Windows CE and buying brand-new ruggedized devices that run various versions of Windows Mobile, while most other enterprises are focused almost exclusively on Google's Android and Apple's iOS. So, what's going on?

The answer, it turns out, points directly toward the pragmatic nature of manufacturing-focused organizations. Their interest in any mobile OS itself takes a back seat to the jobs they need the ruggedized devices to accomplish.

Manufacturers' mobile ruggedized devices are not Swiss Army Knives that IT departments hope will support the varied needs of multiple lines of business. The ruggedized devices are, instead, treated much more like wrenches or hammers.

"Rugged mobile devices for manufacturing or supply chain are not looked at as computers with operating systems, but rather as a purpose-built tool designed to complete a specific task. When you keep it in those terms, moving to a modern OS is a tougher sell," said Kelly Ungs, senior director of global channel sales at Wavelink, which provides mobility software that supports multiple operating systems.

"My guess is that most rugged mobile device vendors will continue to ship Windows CE and/or Windows Mobile as long as Microsoft will keep selling them licenses," he added.

For ruggedized devices, stability and reliability reign supreme

According to Sue Wilson, vice president of supply chain management for the electronic imaging division of Toshiba America Business Solutions Inc., the most important considerations are reliability and predictability.

"Our environment is one that requires our users to perform a narrow scope of functions that are highly repetitive in nature. We require a product that is reliable, fast and stable," she said. "Product support is also a key factor in selection, as we leverage heavily on the vendor for support."

Toshiba uses a combination of Zebra Windows CE and Windows Mobile wearables and mobile computer devices, with headsets and ring scanners. To anyone outside of manufacturing and supply chain, these devices might seem incredibly inflexible -- but that's not exactly true.

We require a product that is reliable, fast and stable.
Sue Wilsonvice president of supply chain management, Toshiba America Business Solutions

One way that Toshiba was able to add new functionality to its ruggedized mobile devices was to use Wavelink's Velocity and Speakeasy supply chain software. Wavelink software deploys host applications to mobile devices without changing server-side application code. In the case of Toshiba, Wilson's team was able to achieve a $550,000 return on investment in less than three months without involving Toshiba's IT staff.

The Speakeasy voice-enablement software, paired with Zebra WT41N0 Wearable Terminal Series rugged computers, lets Toshiba warehouse workers execute commands and transactions faster with greater accuracy.

For this project, the operating system was not a leading decision factor.

Mobility software more important than OS?

According to IDC's Worldwide Semiannual Mobility Spending Guide, mobile software revenue will experience double-digit growth by 2020. The strongest growth within the category will come from investments in mobile application development platforms, mobile enterprise applications and mobile enterprise security.

"The key is to use a platform for your development that will protect you and let you move to one mobile OS or the other fairly easily," Ungs said. "Today's mobile hardware has injected such a level of performance [into mobile apps] that it cures a lot of ails. People used to shy away from non-native apps, but the computing power has just exploded, and software is taking advantage of it."

In another example, Kawasaki Motors Corp. U.S.A. used LongRange from LANSA to redeploy mobile apps originally designed for iOS for use on Zebra TC70 rugged mobile devices running Android instead. Why? Better battery life and Wi-Fi connectivity. Again, the operating system itself was not a primary factor. The rugged device itself was a more important consideration.

The legacy of Windows

Still, manufacturers have some strong preferences for rugged mobile operating systems, but this is mostly because of legacy Windows-focused investments.

Jim Hilton, global principal of manufacturing and field mobility for Zebra Technologies, said the majority of rugged mobile OS preferences still lean toward Windows versions, but with a caveat: The closer the device is to the plant floor, the more likely the customer will want a device that runs Windows.

"The OS decisions seem tied to the environment. If you go from an outside-in view, a lot of our early Android offerings started in the field first because that's where our customers were asking for Android first," Hilton explained.

What about iOS? Apple's mobile devices were built as consumer-oriented devices. They place a premium on being thin and lightweight, which means they're not particularly rugged, and they require cases and attachments to do the jobs manufacturers need. The same goes for Android devices built for consumers. The key difference is that Android and Windows can be used by OEMs to create specific kinds of rugged devices.

For example, if you're going to mount a tablet to a forklift that doesn't have shock absorbers, a vibration-resistant design is critical; even more important than the underlying OS that powers it. Consequently, OEMs create rugged devices that fit these environmental needs.

Future mobile OS choices for manufacturers

Rugged devices running Microsoft's newer mobile OS, Windows 10 IoT Mobile Enterprise, are expected to start hitting the market over the next year, but it remains to be seen if manufacturers will prefer them over Android-based devices as more OEMs develop Android versions. There are some factors influencing today's decisions, though.

"According to some research we recently conducted, the leading factors influencing OS decisions for next-generation solutions begin with security," said David Krebs, executive vice president of enterprise mobility and connected devices at VDC Research.

To get the nod, Android will need to overcome its reputation as a fragmented OS that's less secure than Windows -- but, again, this matters more for general purpose devices and less for single purpose, locked down devices.

Like other lines of business, manufacturers and supply chain organizations are expanding their mobility strategies to other parts of the enterprise. With this in mind, what other OS factors come into play?

"The ability to customize, a modern UI and business continuity represent the most widely mentioned requirements," Krebs said. "Fundamentally, organizations are looking to invest in a solution that offers the modern UI made popular by Apple and its iconic iOS devices while not sacrificing the robustness and security required for enterprise solutions. An X factor of sorts is perhaps the ability to customize, which is a key capability of Android, while Windows 10 and iOS are more restrictive."

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This was last published in December 2016

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