Written by 10:10 am Feature, FSM Technology

A tale of two markets? Field service and the rugged tablet

Xplore Technologies’ Sandy McCaskie asks whether the rising “consumer made rugged” approach can work for field service companies?

In an industry so exposed to mobile technology it was inevitable that consumerisation would have a huge impact on field service. Mobile phones, tablet PCs and intuitive, point solution apps have all been part of the FSM landscape for years.

And it is now clear that the consumer manufacturers have their sights set on the industry.

It is easy to understand why there has been such profound interest in this market. Gartner research puts the revenue for packaged field service dispatch and workforce management software applications, not including service revenue, at approximately $1.2 billion in 2012, with a compound annual growth rate of 12.7%.

Other analysts forecast the Global Field Service Management market to grow at a CAGR of 4 percent over the period 2012-2016.

Much of this growth has been driven and will continue to come from small and medium-sized enterprises and though high implementation costs could pose a challenge to the growth of this market, the clear commercial drivers are presently winning.

Top of this list of drivers is that an ever-more competitive landscape means service businesses are struggling to differentiate themselves to a customer base with expectations at an all-time high.

As the number of customer touch-points increases for every brand, services in the field are rapidly becoming the new frontline in the battle for competitive market share, playing a major role in customer satisfaction, brand reputation and customer retention and profitability.

Adding to this, logistical challenges, unpredictable fuel prices, incoming legislative requirements and environmental concerns make today a challenging time to run a service operation.

These service organisations will need to invest in a number of initiatives to tackle these elements. At the risk of sounding predictable, it is the technology at the heart of those customer interactions in the field that will be vital and needs most intense scrutiny.

In recent research, 88% of field service directors say say that increasing workforce productivity and utilisation is an important strategic objective but less than 20% had implemented fully automated scheduling, dispatch and mobility systems to deliver real-time visibility and control of field service

The research suggests that the need to integrate a diverse mix of often incompatible legacy systems is preventing many organisations from realising the full potential of technology to increase workforce efficiency, a crucial factor in achieving service excellence.

This is one half of the story – the other comes from the development of the rugged tablet market.

The rugged tablet market, has shown consistent quarterly growth upwards of 20% for the past two years, is showing signs of slowing. VDC anticipates that the rugged tablet market will top $500 million in 2014 and that the increased adoption of Android will present a growing opportunity as more enterprises move to adopt the OS for line-ofbusiness applications.

This is in comparison to the rugged handheld market, which represents the single-largest mobile computing category at nearly $600 million.

This battle between form factor is keenly fought in field service: recent VDC research showed that 89% of “field mobility” businesses deploy smartphones, 67% deploy tablets, 24% use a rugged handheld and 28% use a rugged tablet.

This dominance of consumer tablets over rugged tablets pervades all vertical markets, but so does the closeness of the figures of those deploying rugged handheld and tablets.

At the present time, in many cases the decision to deploy a rugged tablet is at the immediate expense of rugged handhelds, rather than a consumer tablet.

This can be best understood because rugged tablets offer a better “point of convergence” for all of the demands on the technology in the field, especially when compared to handhelds or even ruggedised smartphones.

However, there are some strong conflicting factors at play for the rugged tablet market at the present time – top of which is the need to develop more consumer-inspired designs versus maintaining legacy capabilities when dealing with verticals that are typically averse to change.

And of course, one of the problems with making a tablet that is built to last, is that refresh cycles are going to be further apart.

However, the fact remains that the enterprise tablet market, especially a rugged market that comes with added incentives of billable service, peripherals for workflow and strong customer loyalty is going to spark the interest of the major manufacturers.

Samsung has recently made strong attempts to secure rugged business.

Field service, alongside construction, is going to be a great proving ground to see if this “consumer made rugged” approach can work.

This is not just a simple case of ruggedised casing on existing consumer models.

Peripherals, be they data collection units, docks, carry bags etc are important considerations.

Small design nuances like a handle, stylus input and screen viewability will cause a lot of early changes for these consumer-based units. But much will come from the simple question of if these consumer-focused manufacturers understand the vertical markets in which they will operate.

Consumer taste changes fast. IT investment cycles do not. There is a reason for imposing standards such as software security or methods of data collection. The worry is that using consumer based units is – frankly – begging to have holes ripped into the fragile fabric of mobile data security.

A lot of the expertise (and therefore control) is in the hands of the channel and some manufacturers may not like that. And let us not forget that the rugged market is already dominated by a consumer name.

For those of us already engaged in developing ruggedised tablets for professional markets such as field service, we must view the the entrance of the large consumer manufacturers as a call to arms.

The response will be one of innovation, keen alignment to the demands of the industry, And perhaps one or two moments of disruption too.

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