A big, surprising deal between Apple and IBM was announced in the WSJ in July – the two giants announced the intention of having IBM offer Apple devices and Big Blue custom apps to corporate clientele.
While such a strategy may make sense for supporting knowledge and BYOD (bring-your-own-device) workers, it misses the boat for major commercial vertical markets (i.e. utilities, logistics, warehouse, MRO, health care, retail, etc).
A recent article in Wired magazine asks why commercial users of mobile computing devices are not readily gravitating towards consumer grade cell phone devices. The author implies that the current devices used in the enterprise space are not using a “Real OS” and claims that current enterprise class devices are use obsolete technology and perform poorly. The writer is either unfamiliar with the current crop of devices from today’s tier 1 suppliers or is simply misinformed.
Gaining an understanding of the reasons why commercial application oriented devices are preferred in these markets requires a serious look at the application needs. Unlike consumers, commercial clients are only marginally concerned, if at all, with cool or trendy-looking devices. For them, the coolness factor is about as important as the way a carpenter would view a new hammer. Mobile computing devices are simply tools employed for very specific business purposes. The properties and performance that enterprises seek in these tools varies greatly from what we expect as consumers. Here are a few key points lacking in Wired’s assessment:
- Significant investment
Commercial enterprises invest fortunes in the applications to run their operations. Keeping pace with the product life cycles of consumer devices would force an expensive, never ending cycle of quality assurance testing and software application modifications to stay current with the OS levels and changing hardware.
- Ecosystem stability
It’s customary for a consumer to flip their device every two years.
Commercial users want to be assured of a source of supply for the same device for at least 5 years, sometimes more. The rollout period and sustained life of these tools is that long. You simply cannot find a consumer grade mobile computing or cellular platform where the identical device you buy today can still be purchased and supported for more than 1-2 years. To the commercial client, mobile devices are simply a tool to perform job-specific tasks. Changing devices or applications means a major investment in re-deployment and training and often a disruption in operations.
- Battery life
Battery life is another significant differentiator. Commercial devices have battery life that greatly exceeds consumer devices and they operate continuously for 8 hours/day for as much as 5 years. Very few consumer devices can provide that level of continuous use, even when such usage rates are claimed for consumer devices, it is under very narrow, circumstances. It is a function of battery technology but also specific design of the circuitry, selection of components and tweaks to the OS in order to maximize battery life consistent with commercial needs.
- Device security
Commercial clients expect a higher level of device security than do consumers. One of the reasons Android has been slow to be adopted by the commercial world is the lack of device security at the OS level. This is changing but it has taken years to reach a level of stability and security to match older versions of Win CE devices. Apple devices are rarely deployed in typical, non-office worker deployments because they are not open enough to allow layering of enterprise class changes to OS security.
- Ruggedized devices and stable platforms
Commercial devices must be a lot more rugged and stable than consumer devices. This is partly to avoid the cost of replacing the hardware or the nuisance of crashes, but more important is the impact on productivity. Device downtime represents a huge operating cost driver for large businesses. When a mobile device goes down, workers become unable to perform their jobs. Consumer grade devices are generally not stable or durable enough for commercial application. Apple devices do not lend themselves easily to the enterprise use case because the products are not durable enough to survive in blue/grey color worker environments.
Next time you see your friendly UPS driver ask you to sign for a package, take a look at the device they are using. Notice the affects of wear and tear. Realize that the device the driver is using is likely a couple of years old. Can you imagine your cell phone still working with this level of usage? Observe that the application the drivers are using is very narrow and focused on a specific set of tasks. As consumers, we may want to run 20 or more different applications on our cell phones. Do you think that UPS wants its drivers running such a diverse operating environment? Of course, the answer is no. They have a specific job to do and they want it done as efficiently and quickly as possible. It may sound boring but the needs are simple and repetitive.
While many enterprise device brands would be well advised to move towards a greater, user-centered focus on pleasant and intuitive interfaces, commercial devices need not stay current with all consumer trends. Most business applications are not bottlenecked by processor speed hence they don’t leverage much operational value from churning devices for faster micro’s. Likewise, they don’t need the eye candy of “retina displays” and super high-resolution screens for their apps. It took years before commercial client demand for color displays was realized. There are, still to this day, commercial users running their apps under DOS emulators. Why? Their apps and devices work and do the job that is needed. The workforce knows how to use the apps and they are simple. The cost to maintain the apps is negligible while the cost to introduce new applications and devices is not.