by Leonard Hayes
We’ve been involved in mobile technology projects for essential industries for more than 12 years now, and for most of that time, the pattern has been broadly the same. A vendor launches a new mobile device and claims that it will revolutionise the way field engineers work. Invariably, the hype is more impressive than the device itself, and the new features tend to be incremental advantages rather than game-changers.
Over the past 12 months, however, we’ve suddenly seen a dramatic shift in the way essential industries are approaching mobile projects. Tough, ugly, expensive specialist hardware is out. Apple iPhones are in.
On the face of it, this seems like a complete contravention of conventional wisdom. The iPhone is a slick, desirable, fragile looking piece of consumer equipment – not at all the kind of robust kit you’d expect to find in use at a sewage treatment works or a freezing level crossing in northern Scotland.
However, it’s not as impractical as it first appears. A ruggedised case can make the iPhone tough enough; and at a fraction of the price, it’s not such a big problem even if it does break.
With its mobile, 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity, its GPS capabilities, its cameras, and all its other sensors, the iPhone can handle almost any task that an engineer needs to perform in the field. The ability to set up corporate app stores solves the challenges of software distribution and device management, which have always been major bugbears with mobile deployments. And above all, the iOS platform provides an intuitive interface and a highly reliable environment to support mobile asset management applications.
Of course, using commoditised consumer hardware in an operational asset management context is not a new idea – a few years ago we saw a few brave companies adopting Windows Mobile PDAs for a similar purpose. But the iPhone and iPad are being adopted much more widely and much more rapidly than any similar device we’ve seen in the past. It seems to be an idea whose time has come.
So what has been the tipping-point for iPhone adoption in essential industries? In large part, it’s a consequence of Apple’s success in both the consumer and business markets. Millions of customers (including many senior executives in the essential industry sector) have testified to its reliability, simplicity and ease-of-use – which are exactly the characteristics that field engineers need when they are working in challenging environments. It also helps that most people have seen or used this technology at home and are asking a reasonable question – why can’t my work technology be this easy?
Designing software to optimise this new environment involves careful use of the available technology to ensure the fundamental aspects of mobile enterprise asset management are preserved. An intuitive and usable solution (in a hostile environment) is the number one priority before the more advanced features are engaged. We finally have a consumer device coupled with business software that delivers in the field.
For the first time, the industry has found a mobile device that genuinely delivers exactly what its users require. With support from software partners like AMT-SYBEX who share Apple’s philosophy of simple, straightforward and effective design, the iPhone is becoming a true game-changer for our industry.