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Disconnected Mobile Workers: A Bottom-Up Proof That Purpose-Built Devices are Better

There seems to be a majority consensus (80%) among global enterprise executives that mobility is a “key enabler of reaching business goals”. In fact, more than 50% of senior executives intend to expand their mobile workforce in the coming months according to a  recent study conducted by WBR Digital and commissioned by NetMotion. All great news. However, many of those same survey respondents indicated that their companies have experienced difficulties deploying mobile technology as of late. Specifically, they’ve been plagued by connectivity issues – which is troubling considering that the whole point of mobility is to extend critical workflow applications anywhere workers need to go. That requires reliable connectivity. 

NetMotion Mobility Study

That’s why 47% of the executives polled selected connectivity as their #1 criterion for technologies supporting mobile service strategies. While software solutions can address many of the concerns in the chart, connectivity is almost entirely a function of the mobile device itself. More specifically, connectivity is dictated by how the device was designed. That means that those hundreds of new help desk tickets submitted by disconnected mobile workers are most likely the result of inadequate devices. That’s probably why IT is facing diagnostic issues as well.

Therefore, I submit that purpose-built devices – such as rugged mobile PCs that are engineered to customer and/or industry-defined specifications – provide much more reliable and consistent connectivity than general-purpose devices that can be purchased off-the-shelf. Here’s why :

  1. Designing radios is hard.
  2. Mobile device engineers typically design to the end-user’s requirements and not beyond.

Now, it’s not a bad thing at all that mobile computers are only built to sufficiently meet the demands of their “typical” customer. Well-designed machines and structures, which are designed to the full requirements of the environment they’ll operate in, can be outstandingly effective. But over-designed or under-designed devices are just examples of the wrong tool for the job. Therefore, many mobile devices being deployed by today’s enterprises – the consumer and “business” grade brands in particular – are lacking the capabilities and performance-based features of, say, rugged tablets that are engineered to solely serve the industrial, field service, and enterprise professional segment.

Think about it this way:

Earthquake-proof construction

Skyscrapers need to withstand significant structural load, and architects have figured out how to build these towers with remarkable resiliency to the surrounding environmental elements. For examples, buildings located in earthquake zones have bases that can move and, thus, dampen the effects of an earthquake. However, an earthquake-resistant building that is considered essential in Tokyo would no doubt be overkill in Manhattan. Therefore, architects in New York would design structures within a different set of building codes – just like a mobile device manufacturer would consider their core customer’s unique “spec” requirements with each new platform design.

So, what happens when a product is over-engineered? That depends.

Back in the 1950s, bridges were in fact over-engineered. They used a lot more steel than needed because engineers didn’t have computer-based tools to do a thorough analysis of the structural loads. So, they basically threw more steel at the problem as a failure prevention tactic. Recently, the  bridge over the Delaware River that connects the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the New Jersey Turnpike had to be closed and repaired. A crack appeared in a steel beam. And it wasn’t a bridge inspector that found the crack; it was a supervisor who was checking on a recent paint job. 

Crack in Bridge construction

He noticed this crack:

Take note of how nice the paint looks, and how there is no paint inside the crack. It was clearly a sudden and recent failure. After a couple months of repairs, inspections and analysis, the bridge recently reopened. But the extensive resources that had to be committed to diagnosing, troubleshooting, and eventually repairing the issue were likely expensive. And the bridge’s downtime was certainly more than just inconvenient for many.

Now, modern bridges have built-in redundancy to effectively prevent the repetition of such failures. These bridges have been designed using sophisticated algorithms on powerful computers, are now engineered to limit the load on any one beam and to have other structural parts act as back up. In other words, they are designed to the industry-standard requirements for anticipated usage and lifecycle; not over-designed.

So how does this relate to the engineering of mobile devices, like tablets? And the mobile connectivity challenges that so many IT departments seem to be facing?

While it may seem that mobile computer radio design is easy because “every-device-and-its-brother” seems to have a Wi-Fi or cellular radio, in reality there are critical design issues that define good versus great performance. And a lot of that comes down to the antennas – the types used, their location, how they are tuned, and if nearby electronics are interfering. 

Maxwell's Equations for electrical engineering

Maxwell’s equations define the basics principles of electrical engineering. And a lot of this relates to how electrical signals interact with each other.

Consumer-grade and general-purpose mobile devices, the ones you can buy off-the-shelf, are designed for a less challenging environment. For a tablet, that means a home or office that typically has Wi-Fi access points nearby. Cellular-based devices are designed for an environment with clean signals and not too much loss. And they work fine when the conditions are right. But “fine” doesn’t cut it out in the “real” world that many companies operate in today, such as rural or industrial settings. Plus, as any mobile worker will attest, signal strength varies more often than any wireless service provider’s TV commercials would have you believe.

Real-world work sites are often long distances away from the nearest signal transmitter; they also tend to be laden with lots of interference from heavy machines, transformers, and dense walls, such as the lead walls in hospitals or reinforced concrete walls of manufacturing and warehousing facilities. The only way a mobile device can “hear” the signal in a tough environment is to have an antenna that is tuned to the max and a radio that has been precision-designed to accommodate for – and minimize –local interference. Designing a mobile device to these unique standards takes commitment – commitment by OEM engineers to optimize for radio performance and force other chips and traces to stay away. 

Wi-Fi antenna placement

Consumer device manufacturers just don’t have that commitment, and they don’t need to. They have the luxury of prioritizing looks, the feel of materials, and other “secondary” aspects first and foremost because that’s what consumers have indicated will influence their buying decision. For example, the first iPad engineers placed the device’s Wi-Fi antenna in the middle of the back side of the tablet between two batteries. It was practically the worst place to put an antenna. Of course, the first iPad was a major success, but not in field service or industrial settings. But it succeeded because consumer devices with “good” radios that work in their typical environment – a consumer’s home, the local coffee shop, or inside an office – are sufficient and acceptable per the user’s defined specs. 

Rugged Tablet Wi-Fi antenna placement

Now, look at the radio and antenna layout from a 2007 rugged tablet – a mobile device design that pre-dated the iPad by three years:

Note how the labeled antennas are placed on the edges. Also notice how the docking connector (center, lower) and other connectors to its right are not near the antennas. This design is an antenna-first design, and its real-world performance was exceptional. But it was meant to be exceptional, because that’s what the tablet’s “typical” user required to consider this device sufficient for its everyday environment.

The point?

The techniques used by rugged tablet companies to mitigate the challenges noted in this  NetMotion study via design are far more focused and sophisticated than what you’ll get from most mobile computer manufacturers. Consider the brakes on a street car, and the brakes required for a race track. The brakes on your street car will perform exactly the same over and over again – it is a rare scenario when the brakes would overheat. But take those same brakes to a race track, and within 10 minutes there will be significant brake fade due to overuse. There are brake solutions that survive the heat generated on the track; they are generally much larger with more abrasive pads. They can resist the heat generated from the three braking zones where triple-digit speeds need to be reduced like NOW to 40 MPH, in the 3.4 miles of Circuit of the Americas. 

Brakes wear for racing versus driving

So, if your #1 most important issue is connectivity, ensure your workers are hitting the road with mobile devices designed to meet YOUR exact performance expectations within YOUR unique environment. Otherwise, trying to force-fit a “good” product into an extreme role will just result in a more rapid multiplication of those help desk tickets and disconnected, unproductive workers. Remember: The goal of mobility is to increase workforce productivity and responsiveness while reducing IT cost and resource burdens. Neither one of those can be achieved by a device that was never designed to do the job you’re trying to make it do. 

Blog Author: Bob Ashenbrenner
President of Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC.