How Do You Choose The Right Mobile Device For Your Workers?

By  Gil Bouhnick, Engineering Group Manager, ClickSoftware — January 06, 2009




So your organization decides to go mobile. In today's world, that is not enough. With complex requirements, and numerous technologies, the decision becomes more complicated than ever. The variety of wireless devices at large in the enterprise can include cell phones, smartphones, handheld devices, and even iPhones, in addition to PC-based devices such as laptops, tough books, tablets, and the emerging ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs).

Successful mobile strategies hinge on the type of device organizations choose. But with the dozens of different devices available today and their myriad features, buyers can easily get overwhelmed by pricing wars and features they'll never use. The smart approach is to first consider the features that will best suit your operational needs, then match the device to those features. In this article, we'll take a look at the most important considerations when choosing the right mobile device for your mobile strategy.

Portability
Not every mobile device is truly portable. Try carrying a laptop while climbing a utility pole. Drop it and that's $2,000 you'll never see again. So, first you need to consider where your field technicians will spend most of their time working with the device. Will it be in the van? Inside offices? Outside in the rain? In manholes? Handheld devices are more portable than laptops, tablets, etc. If the nature of the business requires maximum portability and minimum size and weight, a handheld device would be the better option.

Real-time Updates
Some organizations dispatch service tasks on a daily basis in the morning while others prefer to be more dynamic, dispatching tasks almost in real time. One of the benefits of having the latter system is that it provides a company with access to key information in real time so managers can make smart scheduling decisions on the fly. Organizations, such as utilities, need to have schedule flexibility to be able to respond in real time to unforeseen events such as downed power lines.

Integrated scheduling and mobile applications provide dispatchers with more current information so they are always aware of the technician's exact status: current location, connection status, current activity, traffic status, and more. These types of systems allow technicians in the field to see schedule changes immediately, while also updating dispatchers in real time about job completion.

Mobile devices need to fit the real-time mode if organizations want to respond nimbly to schedule changes throughout the day. Cell-phones, smartphones and PDAs are designed to work in real time. A PDA never goes to sleep. Even when it's off, it still gets phone calls, emails, meeting alerts, etc. On the other hand, a hibernated laptop will never beep! In fact, if it is currently in a standby mode it will never know if something in the schedule has changed.

So, if your organization would like to assign jobs in drip feed mode (one or two at a time), perform real-time optimization, and monitor status accurately throughout the day, then you need mobile devices to always be connected. This can be done by configuring laptops in a way they will never be in "standby" mode, but it's far more natural to implement it with handheld devices.

Application Requirements:
Before choosing a mobile device, you need to determine what you want your mobile application to do. Some organizations use mobile applications to report working hours, location, status, progress and simple completion reports. For this kind of use, even a simple WAP browser running on a cell phone may be enough.

Organizations seeking to do more, such as view customer history, fault description, required parts, file attachments, etc. will have to use more sophisticated handheld devices. Those organizations that need more mobile functionality, such as storing all their asset information on multiple layer maps, as well as schematics and documents, long reports and massive timesheets holding complex daily activities reports, should consider using heavier equipment such as UMPCs, tablets or laptops. Trying to cram all of that functionality onto a handheld device often yields unfriendly user interfaces and frustrated field technicians.

Additional Considerations:

  • Keyboard: Think about the amount of typing required by technicians. With or without a QWERTY keyboard, handheld devices are not easy to use. They are enough for short
  • emails/SMS, etc., but if the field work requires long reports with lots of typing, your technicians will not like using this small piece of hardware.
  • Touch screen: Some businesses will need a touch screen for the sake of signature capturing, maps redlining, etc. Keep in mind that not all the handheld devices come with a touch screen (most BlackBerrys, Nokia, and Windows Mobile Standard devices do not have touch screen). However, tablet PCs and handheld devices running Windows Mobile professional come with pretty good touchscreen support.
  • Other Accessories: Some organizations depend on barcode scanners or RFID. Many industry handheld devices such as phones, cameras and GPS units already have those types of scanners built in, making them more attractive.
  • Battery Life: Even with the strongest battery, a laptop will not run as long on a battery as a handheld device. Most organizations solve this issue by having a charge located in the van, but managers need to consider what will work best based on a technician's normal work day.
  • Usability: Usability is not only a matter of software. Some handheld devices come with smaller screens (240,240) while others do not have a keyboard. For some users (like me), a joystick is a disaster and a d-pad (directional pad) is perfect. Others will want a full touchscreen, while some technicians with thick fingers will not be able to use it at all. Some devices come with more hardware buttons than others and some companies (e.g. Psion Teklogix) have the ability to define custom hardware buttons based on customer needs.
  • Software/hardware integration: Don't settle with just reading the specs! Some devices claim to have great specs but simply work slower than others. Whatever device you choose, you should test it with the mobile application in real conditions in the field. Let your technicians get a grip of what they will be using and consider their feedback. Remember that as always, the project's success hinges on employee satisfaction.

About the author
As the engineering group manager at ClickSoftware, Gil Bouhnick leads two development teams creating the service optimization suite of products with a focus on mobility and the user interface. Bouhnick serves as a product manager helping to define product strategy and requirements based on customer feedback. Bouhnick led the user interface team which developed the company's flagship product with more than 120 customers and thousands of users around the world. In his different development roles, he has worked with various technologies, including C++, MFC, VB, .Net, Java and more. Bouhnick can be reached at Gil.Bouhnick@clicksoftware.com.





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