by Galen Gruman

Mobile’s new frontier: The front line of business

Sep 29, 2020
AndroidIT StrategyMobile

Workers who don’t work at a desk are finally starting to see mobile technology become standard tools to improve their work — and business results — as CIOs focus more outside the office.

Close-up shot of a mobile user's hands and phone  >  messaging / texting
Credit: Diego Cervo / Getty Images

For all the advances of the mobile revolution, a huge swath of the business has largely been left out: front-line workers — ironically, your organization’s most mobile employees.

While 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’t at desks have hobbled along with embedded devices connected to siloed systems.

Yes, there have been pockets of smartphone and tablet use in these front-line industries, especially in healthcare, but it has never been ubiquitous. That’s 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.

Gartner 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.

Mobilizing the front lines

It’s 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.

The big difference from knowledge workers’ 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 — 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.

As 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’s retail employees wherever they are in the stores, as well as chat to allow for textual walkie-talkie interactions on the retail floor.

Modernizing back-end systems for mobile orchestration

Meanwhile, back-end systems are being modernized to better support front-line devices and smartphones. The motivating factor? E-commerce — specifically, Amazon — 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’s created full-view and immediate-gratification expectations in all sorts of uses, from accessing healthcare to banking.

As 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.

Retail, for example, has traditionally been riddled with siloed systems, from warehouse to inventory, to order management, to e-commerce, IDC’s 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 — 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.

None of this is easy, Bassett notes. Replacing or modernizing back-end systems is expensive and time-consuming. Front-line apps — whether on mobile or computers — 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’t lead to desired business results.

Still, 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. “It requires heavy lifting. But it is worthwhile for productivity and improved workflow.”

For retail, says Gartner’s Wallin, those benefits go beyond supporting the “interesting logistics tricks” inherent to hybrid physical-online businesses, as today’s more sophisticated mobile technology can help customer experience in subtle ways. For example, a customer could use a retailer’s app on their phone while trying on clothes to ask for additional items or different sizes discreetly — so they don’t have to get dressed just to find more items to try. “You can’t really do that with loudspeaker announcements,” 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.

Transforming the front line

Retail isn’t 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’s 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.

Hospitals, 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’s wrist ID and the medication’s 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.

At 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 — especially in the oil and gas industry where sales volumes and prices have plummeted — the attention has shifted to improving yield management and overall results quality. “They need smarter tools to help workers support manufacturing in a better way,” he says.

Rugged-device makers and carriers are also dedicating spectrum to firefighters and police, IDC’s Bassett says. “These 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,” he says. “Display of data, rich user experience, and access to information are all important,” he says — all things standard radios and beepers can’t do. Still, no cellular data networks are as reliable as radio, so Bassett doesn’t see radios going away in public safety — though perhaps some mobile devices will include traditional radios to lessen the load for workers who also get modern mobile devices.

COVID-19’s impact on front-line mobile adoption

The COVID-19 pandemic has “only turbocharged the need to support front-line workers,” says Gartner’s 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.

Another 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’t want outsider in who might accidentally contaminate the facilities.)

IDC’s 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. “They were ready to handle a new unknown and were already thinking about the mobile workflow.” Even had the pandemic not struck, that front-line modernization would have been needed to compete with e-commerce providers.

The evolution of front-line devices

Technology 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.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, front-line mobile devices typically ran one of Microsoft’s 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.

Apple’s iOS wasn’t 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’s Bassett notes that those faded away because the devices were often stolen, were easily broken, and weren’t available in the same configuration for the many years necessary for front-line use.

As 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.

Android also offers the significant advantage of being “unencumbered by form factor,” so the same underlying OS can be used in everything from price scanners to tablets with plug-in sensors, says IDC’s Bassett. “iOS 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.”

Android 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.

Speaking of Teams, Microsoft earlier this year updated the collaboration tool to better support shift workers, especially around identity and access management for shared devices — 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’s Wallin says. Google has also brought shift support into Android, as has Samsung in its Knox management technology, Wallin adds. iOS doesn’t offer much in the way of shift support.

More 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.

For some front-line scenarios, tablets provide the optimal form factor, such as field service, which requires a larger screen than smartphones provide, says IDC’s Bassett. Gartner’s Wallin also notes that ruggedized Windows 10 tablets — from Dell, Getac, Lenovo, Panasonic, Zebra, and others — 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’s records — and be more easily cleaned and disinfected than a laptop with its many parts.

In 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.

Detachable tablets (aka all-in-ones, hybrid tablets, and convertibles) have had pockets of success, says IDC’s Bassett, but not the ubiquity expected when they debuted in the early 2010s. “The use-case scenario ended up being more limited,” he says. “If you’re going to use a computer, you’re going to use a computer.”

Mobile management tools help wrangle front-line use

When 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.

Today, plenty of proven mobile management vendors, including BlackBerry, IBM, MobileIron, and VMware, support the Android versions in use in front-line devices.

Unified 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.

Differences, 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’s settings to the next. All the major UEM platforms — BlackBerry UEM, IBM Maas360, MobileIron UEM, Soti MobiControl, and VMware Workspace One — plus the Samsung-only Knox support front-line scenarios. But Wallin says that Microsoft’s own Intune management tool has poor support for front-line scenarios, especially those involving shift workers — despite Microsoft’s long history in front-line mobile.

With the technical backbone now available, and many back-office modernization efforts already under way, it’s 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.