Over the last 12 months the question of whether, or indeed when, to begin the transition from Windows Mobile as a platform for task worker mobility solutions is one that has been debated again and again. Windows Mobile has been a reliable platform for the task worker for over 10 years, supported by a wealth of fit for purpose, ruggedized hardware. However, organizations are assessing the latest mobile operating systems against their task worker solution requirements and at the same time unearthing the challenges that this change inevitably presents.
Although Windows Mobile never overtly revolutionized the consumer mobile world in the way iOS did, it played an extremely important part in the ecology of mobile. Ultimately, Windows Mobile is the basis of thousands of applications developed within a Microsoft platform that both enterprises and independent software vendors (ISVs) eulogized, making use of common skills in developing under the .NET framework. In comparison to today’s apps, the user interfaces were often far from appealing, lacked any kind of engaging experience and across the board seemed to have a “this was absolutely developed in Visual Studio” feel. Nevertheless, it provided a platform to develop task-oriented applications that were easy to use, secure and integrated with existing enterprise back-office systems.
Enterprises across the globe adopted Windows Mobile for many reasons. One that supported (and continues to support) an entire industry of ISVs, hardware vendors and systems integrators was the ability to successfully mobilize a specific use case: the task worker. The task worker in the enterprise can take many forms, but here I am focusing on those that are primarily field-based and laborcentric, for example utility engineers, delivery drivers, asset auditors. The deployment of mobile enablement solutions across this specific use case has been rife over the last 10 years, as enterprises discovered that the business case and return on investment could be easily quantified and realized through the deployment of mobile technology, facilitating automation of manual administration processes.
Many of the clients I have met over the last 12 months are beginning to look beyond their original Windows Mobile deployment and are considering their options for the next iteration of mobile technology. The majority have invested significantly in Windows Mobile as a platform for task worker applications, and in most cases it has been very successful in improving efficiency and productivity of its task worker field operations.
Thankfully, the mobile enablement climate has changed significantly since the early days of Windows Mobile. Back then when you had an idea to “mobilize the enterprise workforce” your choices were limited technically in terms of platform choice and capability, and also in engaging partners who could bring the relevant wealth and subject-matter expertise to your project. These days that supposition no longer exists, as the choice of partners to help you with the transition toward your next iteration of mobile for the task worker is both wide and varied. Thankfully IBM Mobile Enterprise Services is ideally placed to help develop every aspect of the solution. There are of course a number of challenges to work through when assessing the next phase of mobile technology for the task worker, and in my recent experience in working with clients the following key areas have been prominent in the initial assessment process:
Convergence of task worker and knowledge worker requirementsThe line between the knowledge worker and task worker use case generally remains distinct; however there is now a propensity for task workers to be as integrated with the enterprise network as their knowledge worker counterparts. This typically manifests in providing task workers with access to email, calendar and contacts. I have worked on countless projects in deploying applications for task workers where the only real requirement lay with the applications being deployed to the device. Rarely did an enterprise see any benefit in giving access to laborcentric task workers over and above what the primary applications provided, and in many cases the users did not even have a directory services account.
In the connected era this requirement is prevalent, and along with it will no doubt come the ever increasing discussion of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and whether this can actually work for the task worker. Either way, a focus on endpoint security and device management will be a significant part of the planning process.
Mobile application development platforms
The discussion around native, web and hybrid mobile application development rages on, with various opinions on which is actually best. Needless to say if you developed your Windows Mobile application in native .NET code you are going to need to do some reworking.
This of course is not necessarily a bad thing, since recreating the mobile platform will give you the opportunity to fully assess the new end-to-end requirements and allow you to take advantage of some of the rich controls and integration that now exist within so many mobile application development platforms. The platform choice will always be difficult if you move away from Windows Mobile in terms of iOS versus Android versus Windows Phone. In truth the best mitigation strategy for this is to utilize a development platform that is committed to supporting the latest mobile operating systems and allows you as much as possible to adopt a “write once and deploy to many” strategy.
Mobile hardware platforms
Hardware for the task worker has always been a discipline in itself. In most cases the working environment of the task worker is not conducive to a standard iPhone or any other consumer-grade device. Task worker requirements can range from intrinsically safe devices to a unit with at least some form of IP (ingress protection) rating to ensure it can stand up to the elements. Mobile device manufacturers such as Motorola, Intermec and Honeywell have each released their own flavor of a ruggedized device on Android, and in 2013 we will no doubt see a good few more, along with a number running Windows Embedded 8. For consumer hardware, companies such as OtterBox provide cases to increase the durability and protection of the device. Whatever the chosen way forward, and as you did with your initial Windows Mobile deployment, the same amount of effort into user workshops and device trials will be required to ascertain the most suitable platform.
Over the years I have personally witnessed deployments of Windows Mobile applications transform business operations and deliver a myriad of quantitative and qualitative benefits. However, we are now at a stage where the traditional consumer platforms cannot be ignored for the task worker.
For those who are considering the transition away from Windows Mobile, the challenges of replacing the technology that users have grown to know and love are indeed many, but thankfully organizations like IBM have developed mobile offerings that can help. IBM Mobile Enterprise Services includes mobile deployment planning, mobile security, device management, application development and analytics that can be brought together to deliver a truly holistic mobile solution for task workers and across the enterprise.