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While consumer use of mobile operating systems is followed closely by many analysts, their use in manufacturing and supply chain organizations is much harder to tease out. Consumer trends, as reported by IDC, Gartner and others tend to show Google's Android with a mobile OS market share ranging from 83 to 88%, while Apple's iOS ranges from 12 to 15%. And what about Windows Phone? Its consumer mobile OS market share is typically just a tiny slice that's less than 1%.
When you step into manufacturing environments, though, each vendor's mobile OS market share changes radically.
"Windows is predominately strong on rugged devices -- combining laptops and tablets -- but we are seeing rugged Android tablets coming to the market," said Mikako Kitagawa, principal research analyst at Gartner. "[The] iPad is too fragile for rough working environments," she added, noting that the market for rugged mobile devices is still very much a small niche.
Still, where the mobile device lives in a manufacturing-focused organization can radically change the type of mobile device and operating system in use.
For instance, consumer-oriented devices running Android or iOS are more prevalent farther away from the manufacturing floor, particularly for sales-related parts of the business.
"We're seeing Android and iOS used in the sales process where there are fairly complex products that need to be configured -- automotive, aerospace, defense, industrial machinery," said Kimberly Knickle, research vice president for IDC. "Any time you need more detail about the specifications of a product ... all of those things are easier to do when the salespeople have mobile devices."
Because the expense and ease of deploying iOS and Android have become more manageable, Knickle said, IDC (figure 1) is seeing more rugged Android devices and iOS devices outfitted with rugged cases get put to work.
"Some manufacturers have been willing to go with more consumer-type devices in rugged cases as opposed to buying fully ruggedized devices," she said. "I think companies are getting more comfortable with the replaceability of consumer-grade devices." Knickle also noted that sometimes it is more cost-effective to replace broken devices over time versus investing in traditional, fully ruggedized devices.
The Windows Mobile oxymoron
Remember the tiny sliver of the consumer mobile OS market share for Windows Phone? The picture changes drastically in manufacturing-centric activities, where rugged mobile devices are dominated by a variety of mobile versions of Windows. Examples include Windows CE (now called Windows Embedded Compact), Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 10 IoT Mobile Enterprise.
"The real issue plaguing many organizations making rugged handheld investment decisions is that the most prominent and widely adopted operating systems running on these devices -- Windows CE and Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 -- are reaching their end of life by 2020," said David Krebs, executive vice president of Enterprise Mobility & Connected Devices at VDC Research.
For organizations with an existing fleet of these devices, the decision on a next-generation device is becoming increasingly critical, Krebs said, noting that no matter which next-generation mobile OS people select, they will still likely need to modify existing applications.
"Microsoft has also dropped the ball because their next-generation platform for this market -- Windows Mobile 8.1 -- was widely dismissed," Krebs added. He said he expects to see more products running Windows 10 IoT Mobile Enterprise in the next six to nine months.
Even so, aging versions of mobile Windows on brand new rugged devices are currently selling in manufacturing organizations.
"It may be a surprise, but it appears to us that Windows CE is having one last hurrah before its move to pasture," said Kelly Ungs, senior director of channel sales for Wavelink. "This year, we've seen a lot of purchases for Windows CE and Windows Mobile licenses, which tells us that companies are trying to postpone moving on as long as they can."
Wavelink offers mobility management software, with client installs topping 10 million enterprise mobile devices. Wavelink software works with Windows, Android and iOS -- which means Wavelink customers can use different hardware devices and mobile OS versions. From what Wavelink is seeing, iOS had a few trials early on, but it has virtually disappeared from the industrial radar.
"There are still a few companies using iOS devices in rugged cradles with integrated scanners, but we don't hear about much new business headed in that direction," Ungs said.
"Windows 10 IoT is starting slow, but we are expecting that, by the end of the first half of next year, it will gain critical mass and grow into the rugged install base," Ungs noted. "Android is growing on an aggressive line -- one-half of our new inquiries are for Android." He expects that the initial interest will translate into actual license sales over the next few years, as Android and the availability of devices matures.
Rugged Android on the rise
While legacy rugged Windows mobile devices still hold the majority in manufacturing-oriented organizations, VDC Research is also seeing rising Android installations and mobile OS market share.
"Each of the rugged handheld OEMs currently offer devices running Android, and in the first half of 2016, shipments of rugged Android devices represented almost 25% of unit shipments," Krebs said (figure 2).
Zebra Technologies, which makes a wide range of "purpose-built" rugged mobile devices, is also seeing strong interest in Android.
According to Bill Abelson, external communications lead for Zebra Technologies in the Americas, the vendor is seeing increased interest in Android across multiple industries. The company recently shipped its one-millionth Android-based enterprise mobile computer.
And what about rugged devices specifically?
"More than 40% of our rugged mobile computers being shipped today are running Android," he said, noting that this percentage only reflects its rugged mobile computers -- not Zebra's entire line of rugged mobile devices.
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