Device choices make mobile workforce management decisions primary

The decision to deploy devices to support a mobile workforce is an easy one, but choosing which devices and platforms to deploy is not as easy.

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The iPad is no stranger to popularity. Now, interest in Apple Inc.'s tablet device is surging beyond besieged Apple stores and is spilling over into the halls of enterprise IT. Many CIOs are seriously considering putting iPads into the hands of their mobile workforce.

Historically, mobile employees, such as delivery staff and insurance claims adjusters, have used pagers, laptops, earlier-generation tablet PCs and custom-created mobile devices. The iPad, however, with its relatively low cost and user-friendly interface, is turning heads in a field that traditionally has been more comfortable with durable and reliable, rather than sexy, technology. Is the iPad too sleek and too elegant for the rigors of the mobile workforce? Some companies say yes; others, no.

In February, the Utilities Operating Unit of Skanska UK PLC announced it will give its field workforce Apple iPhone smartphones and iPad tablets. The unit will run ClickSoftware Technologies Ltd.'s ServiceOptimization Suite and its Mobile Enterprise Application on the devices. The move will raise efficiency, improve customer service, enhance workforce productivity and reduce the impact on the environment, Skanska officials said.

In another iPad implementation, Arhaus Furniture in Walton Hills, Ohio, is giving all 50 of its delivery people an iPad. They will use the tablets to get signatures from customers, as well as to interest them in additional merchandise, according to reports about the implementation. Arhaus will use mobile workforce management software from Cleveland-based TOA Technologies Inc. to arrange delivery schedules.

iPad not tough enough for a mobile workforce?

Some organizations are looking for something a little sturdier than the iPad, however. Alliance Inspection Management LLC (AIM), an automobile appraisal firm headquartered in Long Beach, Calif., has outfitted all 400 people in its mobile-appraiser workforce with a Panasonic Toughbook CF-19, a ruggedized laptop-convertible tablet.

This year is going to be the year of the tablet. For a software vendor, it's an agonizing choice to pick a platform. We're writing a layer for Android, but the core application could be ported to another platform.

Michael Hamilton, director of product management for workforce management, Ventyx

"There's a lot of interest in the iPad, but it's not rugged," said Jim Yates, the firm's CEO. And, Yates added, the iPad doesn't have a USB port, which AIM appraisers require for connecting to cameras and printers. For AIM, those are critical factors. "There are other tablets we're looking at that are rugged. The iPad is not real attractive right now," he said.

With $5,000 invested in the total cost of each device, it's unlikely that AIM will run out to the nearest Apple Store -- or snap up a bunch of Android devices for that matter -- anytime soon. AIM's devices run Windows, and the company is likely to stick with Windows on future end-user devices.

Enstar Natural Gas LLC in Anchorage, Alaska, has deployed Panasonic Toughbook C-30 laptop PCs running Windows 7 and Oracle Corp.'s Mobile Workforce Management application for its mobile workforce of 35 service people.

"We're considering Android devices and the iPad, absolutely," said Pat Shelton, manager of information technology at Enstar. A major inducement is price. Toughbooks cost some $3,000 each and $5,000 fully outfitted, but an Android device would start at $500 to $600.

But whether Enstar makes the move to the new generation of tablet devices depends on whether Oracle certifies its applications on them. So far, only Windows environments are supported. Oracle plans to support Android sometime this year, but has no plans yet for iPad, a company spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Shelton is planning to try out some Panasonic Toughbook H-1 tablets running Windows 7 this summer. Enstar's applications include a geographic information system, or GIS, and tend to run better on a full-scale PC operating system, he said.

Enstar was attracted to Oracle's Mobile Workforce Management application because it integrated readily with Oracle enterprise resource planning, or ERP, applications. "The integrated approach between Oracle products takes the complexity out of the interfaces," Shelton said. "In the future we would like to use asset management, meter management and portfolio management applications," he said.

Rivals on the mobile workforce stage

Besides Windows, there are many other iPad rivals, including Android devices from a number of vendors, as well as BlackBerry OS machines from Research In Motion Ltd.

"In the business world, the fight between the iPad and other products will be intense," said Moshe BenBassat, chairman and CEO at ClickSoftware in Burlington, Mass. Faced with an uncertain outcome, the vendor is designing its product to run on a variety of operating systems. "We developed a layer for the user interface that is device-agnostic. It can run on Android, Apple iOS, Windows and BlackBerry OS," he said.

Ventyx, an Atlanta-based vendor of mobile workforce management software, had developed its application for Windows Mobile 6, only to face the advent of the incompatible Windows Phone 7. "There's real fragmentation," said Michael Hamilton, director of product management for workforce management at Ventyx.

Ventyx wanted its software to operate on devices from a number of hardware vendors in industrial environments. Because the iPad is available only from a single vendor and there's no indication that Apple is planning a ruggedized version, Ventyx chose not to target the iPad. Instead it chose Android as its platform -- but isn't closing out all options forever, including the iPad.

"This year is going to be the year of the tablet. For a software vendor, it's an agonizing choice to pick a platform. We're writing a layer for Android, but the core application could be ported to another platform. We could redeploy to iPad or another leading mobile device," Hamilton said.

Mobile workforce 'consumerizes'

The mobile workforce arena has not missed out on the widely remarked trend known as the "consumerization of IT," in which workers bring their own mobile devices with them and expect corporate IT to provide support, according to Yuval Brisker, president and CEO at TOA Technologies.

"Field workers are bringing consumer-based mobile devices to work. They're not just opting to use what the company is giving them. We're talking about hard-core blue collar people. They're voting with their feet. It's the consumerization of IT -- the consumer is invading the workplace with consumer devices," Brisker said.

With iPads showing up in workers' pockets, the devices are bound to become more prevalent in the enterprise. Third parties could play a role here: Several have come out with ruggedized cases for the iPad. For the iPad to succeed in a big way with mobile workforces, however, Apple will have to meet the requirements of enterprise IT. And historically, Apple has not put enterprise needs first on its to-do list.

"CIOs have to be worried. If you choose iPad, you're stuck with Apple for a long time," Ventyx' Hamilton said, adding, "You see a lot of them [iPads] on the road. They've got a good battery, a good screen and good email. But when you're deploying in the enterprise -- the choice is not so clear-cut."

Stan Gibson is a Boston-based contributing writer. Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchcio.com.

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