For all the advances of the mobile revolution, a huge swath of the business has largely been left out: front-line workers \u2014 ironically, your organization\u2019s most mobile employees.\nWhile knowledge workers have relied on iPhones, iPads, and Galaxys for years now to help ensure their productivity, hospital care staff, retail associates, warehouse staff, delivery people, construction workers, and so many more whose jobs aren\u2019t at desks have hobbled along with embedded devices connected to siloed systems.\n[ Be sure to learn the secrets of highly effective digital transformations \u2014 and beware the 7 myths of digital transformation. | Get the latest on digital transformation by signing up for our CIO Leader newsletters. ]\nYes, there have been pockets of smartphone and tablet use in these front-line industries, especially in healthcare, but it has never been ubiquitous. That\u2019s changing today, with front-line workers poised to join the modern mobile workforce, according to IDC analyst Bryan Bassett and Gartner analyst Leif-Olaf Wallin, both of whom have studied the market for years.\nGartner estimates that the front line will grow from 10 percent of all enterprise mobile investment in 2019 to 40 percent in 2024. Better efficiency, customer-facing quality improvements, and improved compliance and internal operational quality are the main drivers, Wallin says, adding that technical advances such as machine learning and virtual assistance, as well as cheaper and better sensors, are also playing a part in driving new business benefits for a fully mobilized front-line workforce.\nMobilizing the front lines\nIt\u2019s easy to forget that front-line workers were using mobile technology well before knowledge workers. Delivery drivers had signature pads, retail workers had barcode scanners, and telecom installers had portable signal readers, to name just a few examples.\nThe big difference from knowledge workers\u2019 mobile usage: Those mobile devices were really just appliances, dedicated to specific tasks and connecting to very specific systems. Today, however, many front-line devices can be used for multiple purposes. Moreover, most cost just a few hundred dollars \u2014 a major change from even ten years ago when such embedded devices cost on average $3,000 each, Wallin says, far more than even the priciest smartphones.\nAs a result, companies can now afford to deploy front-line mobile devices more broadly, and bring standard office computing tasks to many more front-line workers. For example, Wallin notes that a mobile device used largely for inventory management and lookup at furnishings chain Ikea can access Microsoft Teams, enabling retail staff to participate in meetings and other communications from the same device. Time sheets and other HR apps are also now available to Ikea\u2019s retail employees wherever they are in the stores, as well as chat to allow for textual walkie-talkie interactions on the retail floor.\nModernizing back-end systems for mobile orchestration\nMeanwhile, back-end systems are being modernized to better support front-line devices and smartphones. The motivating factor? E-commerce \u2014 specifically, Amazon \u2014 has changed customer expectations by integrating much of the product ordering, delivery, and returns processes. A customer can see every step of the journey. That\u2019s created full-view and immediate-gratification expectations in all sorts of uses, from accessing healthcare to banking.\nAs a result, many companies are changing to an integrated, full-service model to satisfy heightened customer expectations and to provide a better customer experience to give customers a reason to come back.\nRetail, for example, has traditionally been riddled with siloed systems, from warehouse to inventory, to order management, to e-commerce, IDC\u2019s Bassett notes. That means retail staff end up writing things down after accessing multiple systems separately in the back room, while customers wait in the product aisles \u2014 or just leave. Today, as these systems get connected to support omnichannel strategies, retail employees can see and act on the bigger picture, reserving desired products at the store in the next town or having them delivered in the desired configuration, Bassett says. Handhelds make that possible in the moment, where it counts most for customer experience.\nNone of this is easy, Bassett notes. Replacing or modernizing back-end systems is expensive and time-consuming. Front-line apps \u2014 whether on mobile or computers \u2014 must also be modernized. For mobile, that means bringing Android into your mission-critical infrastructure, which few have experience in. Moreover, workflows must be rethought, as executing legacy analog workflows in digital environments doesn\u2019t lead to desired business results.\nStill, Bassett says, migrating the back end to new OSes and modern workflows will continue, thanks to the business benefits a more mobile front-line workforce can reap. \u201cIt requires heavy lifting. But it is worthwhile for productivity and improved workflow.\u201d\nFor retail, says Gartner\u2019s Wallin, those benefits go beyond supporting the \u201cinteresting logistics tricks\u201d inherent to hybrid physical-online businesses, as today\u2019s more sophisticated mobile technology can help customer experience in subtle ways. For example, a customer could use a retailer\u2019s app on their phone while trying on clothes to ask for additional items or different sizes discreetly \u2014 so they don\u2019t have to get dressed just to find more items to try. \u201cYou can\u2019t really do that with loudspeaker announcements,\u201d he says, adding that modern front-line mobile devices also enable store clerks to capture more information about their customers to build better profiles for better selling both online and in stores.\nTransforming the front line\nRetail isn\u2019t the only sector primed to reap the benefits of a mobile-empowered front line. For hospitality, customer loyalty can be improved with subtle touches, Wallin says. For example, with mobile devices and apps, a cleaner can get details about a guest\u2019s specific preferences, such as which side of the bed to turn the sheet down on, or to help the floor manager adjust what rooms cleaners work on based on who has arrived in the lobby to check in.\nHospitals, meanwhile, are using tablets bedside to provide updated, connected medical charts to physicians and nurses. Nurses are increasingly using smartphones to check medication before giving it; their handhelds scan the patient\u2019s wrist ID and the medication\u2019s label ID to ensure the right medicine is going to the right patient, at the right dosage. The goal is better care, with better quality, at lower cost and with less malpractice risk.\nAt oil rigs, manufacturing facilities, and utility plants, service workers use ruggedized Windows 10 tablets to look up and navigate complex schematics. Some of these devices are filled with silicon to prevent electrical arcing that could cause catastrophic explosions in volatile environments or to remain immune from water damage such as from storms. Wallin notes that operational efficiency had been the biggest driver of mobility in these areas, but more recently \u2014 especially in the oil and gas industry where sales volumes and prices have plummeted \u2014 the attention has shifted to improving yield management and overall results quality. \u201cThey need smarter tools to help workers support manufacturing in a better way,\u201d he says.\nRugged-device makers and carriers are also dedicating spectrum to firefighters and police, IDC\u2019s Bassett says. \u201cThese devices must be rock-solid. You can run over a Motorola radio with a tank and it will be fine. You need the same for new devices,\u201d he says. \u201cDisplay of data, rich user experience, and access to information are all important,\u201d he says \u2014 all things standard radios and beepers can\u2019t do. Still, no cellular data networks are as reliable as radio, so Bassett doesn\u2019t see radios going away in public safety \u2014 though perhaps some mobile devices will include traditional radios to lessen the load for workers who also get modern mobile devices.\nCOVID-19\u2019s impact on front-line mobile adoption\nThe COVID-19 pandemic has \u201conly turbocharged the need to support front-line workers,\u201d says Gartner\u2019s Wallin. COVID-19 has forced some industries to move more quickly, such as retailers needing to suddenly support curbside pickup or to keep employees at a distance but remain coordinated in their activities.\nAnother example is the delivery of industrial parts. If, say, a conveyor belt breaks, an employee will likely need to do the repair rather than allow a technician into the facility and risk infecting others. So once the part is delivered on site, that employee will need to be talked through the process by either the person who delivered the part or by a call center expert. Either way, mobile devices are the vector for showing the diagrams overlayed on live photos and other in-the-moment support. (Wallin notes this model also works when there is no pandemic, such as for cleanroom environments like bakeries where you don\u2019t want outsider in who might accidentally contaminate the facilities.)\nIDC\u2019s Bassett cites the example of a retailer that began modernizing its front-line systems before the pandemic struck, so it was in the position to enable online ordering, in-store picking and packing, and curbside customer pickup in just 48 hours. \u201cThey were ready to handle a new unknown and were already thinking about the mobile workflow.\u201d Even had the pandemic not struck, that front-line modernization would have been needed to compete with e-commerce providers.\nThe evolution of front-line devices\nTechnology wise, the mobile industry has been in the midst of a major platform shift as businesses have turned their interests toward mobilizing the front line.\nIn the late 1990s and early 2000s, front-line mobile devices typically ran one of Microsoft\u2019s Windows Embedded operating systems on purpose-built, ruggedized handheld devices. But Microsoft signaled a decade ago that Windows Embedded would go away, with standard support ending in 2015 and extended support in March 2020. Device makers have had to find a replacement, since Microsoft decided to exit the business.\nApple\u2019s iOS wasn\u2019t an option for most front-line uses, Wallin says, because Apple would not let anyone else adapt or control the operating system or the hardware it runs on. Sure, there were early sleds for Apple devices to act as point-of-sales devices, but IDC\u2019s Bassett notes that those faded away because the devices were often stolen, were easily broken, and weren\u2019t available in the same configuration for the many years necessary for front-line use.\nAs a result, front-line device makers such as Fujitsu, Honeywell, Kyocera, M3, Panasonic Samsung, and Symbol (later called Zebra Technologies) adopted Android, initially tapping underpowered versions of Android to target specific use cases, like barcode scanning. Today, the front-line devices have enough processing power and memory, and a standard version of Android, so they can be updated regularly and run new apps as needed.\nAndroid also offers the significant advantage of being \u201cunencumbered by form factor,\u201d so the same underlying OS can be used in everything from price scanners to tablets with plug-in sensors, says IDC\u2019s Bassett. \u201ciOS is a great OS but it is not equipped to handle that. Android is really the only OS equipped to address the needs of this market.\u201d\nAndroid front-line devices are still modified to support specialty features such as barcode and NFC tag readers or environmental sensors, but the core Android features remain, enabling them to, for example, run Teams or other apps that work with more, and multiple, sophisticated back-end systems.\nSpeaking of Teams, Microsoft earlier this year updated the collaboration tool to better support shift workers, especially around identity and access management for shared devices \u2014 a major requirement in the front-line world, where devices are shared across shifts and may not go back to the same workers every day, Gartner\u2019s Wallin says. Google has also brought shift support into Android, as has Samsung in its Knox management technology, Wallin adds. iOS doesn\u2019t offer much in the way of shift support.\nMore recently, Google expanded its Android Enterprise Recommended program to include ruggedized devices. Despite a poor start, the Android powers today make front-line mobile a real priority.\nFor some front-line scenarios, tablets provide the optimal form factor, such as field service, which requires a larger screen than smartphones provide, says IDC\u2019s Bassett. Gartner\u2019s Wallin also notes that ruggedized Windows 10 tablets \u2014 from Dell, Getac, Lenovo, Panasonic, Zebra, and others \u2014 are commonly used in the field, providing considerable computing ability in a portable package. iPads and Android tablets are used in many hospitals bedside as live charts that can also enable staff to look more deeply into the patient\u2019s records \u2014 and be more easily cleaned and disinfected than a laptop with its many parts.\nIn retail, smaller tablets work well, Wallin says, providing enough screen detail while still being easily pocketed in a work vest when the employee needs both hands free.\nDetachable tablets (aka all-in-ones, hybrid tablets, and convertibles) have had pockets of success, says IDC\u2019s Bassett, but not the ubiquity expected when they debuted in the early 2010s. \u201cThe use-case scenario ended up being more limited,\u201d he says. \u201cIf you\u2019re going to use a computer, you\u2019re going to use a computer.\u201d\nMobile management tools help wrangle front-line use\nWhen it comes to managing the front-line mobile fleet, IT has been in luck. The shift from Windows Embedded devices to Android saw support from vendors such as Afaria (now discontinued after multiple acquisitions) and Soti, that also supported iOS and Android, plus later Windows 10 and macOS, so there was no loss of management capability in the transition, Wallin says.\nToday, plenty of proven mobile management vendors, including BlackBerry, IBM, MobileIron, and VMware, support the Android versions in use in front-line devices.\nUnified endpoint management (UEM) tools, as they are called today, also support various device scenarios, from BYOD to fully locked-down devices to hybrid use cases where part of the device is locked down and part is open to BYO apps, with the two environments separated. That allows greater flexibility in how devices are used and deployed than existed in the early days of single-purpose front-line devices.\nDifferences, however, exist around support for shift-work environments, in which devices change hands at each shift and need to be quickly switched from one user\u2019s settings to the next. All the major UEM platforms \u2014 BlackBerry UEM, IBM Maas360, MobileIron UEM, Soti MobiControl, and VMware Workspace One \u2014 plus the Samsung-only Knox support front-line scenarios. But Wallin says that Microsoft\u2019s own Intune management tool has poor support for front-line scenarios, especially those involving shift workers \u2014 despite Microsoft\u2019s long history in front-line mobile.\nWith the technical backbone now available, and many back-office modernization efforts already under way, it\u2019s little wonder that CIOs are beginning to focus outside the office for mobile gains. True business value from a fully mobilized front-line workforce has never been closer.