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New mobile devices expand technology options for manufacturers

Manufacturers have no shortage of options when it comes to mobile hardware. The challenge is finding the right fit for each business need.

Given the hype that surrounds the markets for tablets and smartphones, it may be tempting to think that companies are awash with mobile devices these days. But analysts point out that some practical considerations are causing those in the industrial sector, including manufacturers, to take a cautious approach to mobility. The reason: Commercial ERP vendors are still in the early stages of providing mobile modules to their enterprise suites, and mobilizing the proprietary legacy software can be costly.

"Manufacturers have a relatively large investment in custom applications, so there's a development effort required to get the programs working on a tablet," said Patrick Gray, president of technology consulting firm The Prevoyance Group, based in Fort Mill, S.C.

But that doesn't mean manufacturers are letting mobility pass them buy. They realize that the right new mobile devices promise to change the way people work, said Charles Brett, vice president and principal analyst at the Constellation Research Group. "Information is presented to you in a way that enables you to make decisions on the fly. You don't have to sit at the keyboard and grind through [a lot of data]," he said. 

One of the challenges for IT managers and end users is deciding which type of hardware is best for their mobile technology needs. The battle between Bring your own device (BYOD) trends and company-requisitioned mobile gear notwithstanding, hardware choices come down to matching gear with individual job roles. Not surprisingly, mobility analysts say there aren't any hard-and-fast matchups on the mobile device market, but two key considerations can guide the selection process.

Upward momentum for new mobile devices

One thing is clear, experts say: Sales of new mobile devices aren't showing any signs of subsiding. Technology research and analyst firm IDC Manufacturing Insights, based in Framingham, Mass., recently revised its tablet shipment projection for 2012 to a significantly higher figure -- almost 10 million units. IDC rethought the impact of Microsoft's mobile-enabled Windows 8 operating system, due to be officially unveiled October 25. Microsoft itself and a lineup of hardware vendors will also introduce Windows 8 tablets this year. The end result: IDC now says overall tablet sales could hit 117.1 million units this year.

Smartphone shipments through the second quarter also remained robust. According to Stamford, Conn.-based analyst firm Gartner Research, the category rose about 43 %, which doesn't include the latest version of the market-leading Apple iPhone.

Mobile technology focuses on individual business needs

How can IT buyers and end users at manufacturing organizations sort through the onslaught of introductions and decide which devices may work best? Analysts say they need to first understand mobile business needs.

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Senior executives, shop managers and sales staff have some similar, as well as unique, requirements when it comes to new mobile devices. For example, each group may benefit from seeing real-time updates to key performance indicators important to their individual duties. "I can pull the device out of my pocket and see our supply chain or the [profit and loss] results from the last week," Gray said. "Managers can get four or five bits of high-impact information that's available to them all the time."

For this segment of senior and midlevel managers, the relatively large screens on the Apple iOS, Android or new Windows 8 tablets will provide clear displays that can reproduce charts and graphs designed for quick-hit status reports. Since these managers will likely spend much of their time at their home facilities, the larger tablet format won't be a burden to carry around, Gray explained.

Conversely, the sales staff may require something smaller, such as a ubiquitous smartphone that's available when on the road, at customer appointments and after normal business hours. "Some organizations want salespeople to answer the phone if a customer calls at 8 or 9 in the evening or over the weekend," Brett pointed out.

More tablet choices complicate mobile device market

Even after end users decide on the broad category of mobile hardware that will suit them best, they'll still be faced with a number of other options, experts say. In particular, the tablet market is becoming segmented into a growing variety of form factor choices.

So far Apple continues to cling to a one-size-fits-all strategy; even though the latest version of the iPad gets high marks from reviewers for its 2,048- by 1,536-pixel screen, at 9 inches it remains at the upper end of the tablet size spectrum. Another consideration is the iPad's virtual keyboard, which has wide appeal for information-consuming users but may frustrate business users who need to create documents and crunch a lot of numbers.

These design decisions provide an opening for competitors and more choices for end users in manufacturing. Notably, Samsung is cashing in on its gamble that some buyers want more choices in screen sizes. The Samsung Galaxy Note II supports the Android operating system and offers a 5.5-inch screen, which makes it somewhat larger than most smartphone displays, but significantly smaller than an iPad's screen. The first-generation Galaxy Note, with a slightly smaller 5.3-inch display, came out late last year and generated sales of more than 2 million units in less than six months. Along with screen size, another possible attraction to this platform for business buyers is the Galaxy's stylus, which can aid with inputting and editing data, and scrolling through performance summaries, as noted by industry experts.

Other tablets vendors, including Acer, Asus and Toshiba are sticking with larger screens, but attacking usability issues via mini docking stations. For example, the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity, an Android device, has a dual personality. It can run as a tablet with a 10.1-inch display or, thanks to an optional docking station, become a lightweight notebook with a slim keyboard, a touchpad and USB ports.

How manufacturers will compare these choices to the coming Windows 8 tablets is unclear, experts say. Early looks at the operating system and prototype hardware designs by Microsoft have showed off touchscreen interfaces and a removable case that doubles as a keyboard. It's enough to convince some tablet buyers in the business world to hold off on new purchases for now. "Everyone is waiting to see what Microsoft comes out with," said Gray. "After all, it is the 10,000-pound gorilla in corporate IT."

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