Android leads charge with warehouse handhelds
As Microsoft prepares to end support for its Windows Mobile operating system, DCs look to the Android OS for a new generation of rugged handheld devices.
By Ben Ames
Mobile computing devices are a staple in the modern warehouse, allowing workers to perform picking, packing, and putaway tasks far faster than they could with clipboards and paper checklists. From bar-code scanners to touchscreen tablets and voice-directed picking headsets, mobile devices provide the speed and accuracy that DCs need to meet the demands of rising e-commerce orders and expectations for overnight shipping.
Change is in the works for all these devices, however, since nearly all of the computers in this sector run on the Windows operating system (OS), and Microsoft Corp. is planning to end its support for the versions of that software that are used on handheld devices. The Redmond, Wash.-based technology giant will stop issuing security patches and software updates for its Windows CE and Windows Mobile operating systems in a series of rolling deadlines occurring between 2018 and 2021, industry sources say.
After Microsoft "sunsets" its support for those popular products, any company still running that Windows software on its devices will be left to fend for itself in the constant battle to ward off viruses, fix software bugs, or add new apps. A few of the largest user companies may have sophisticated enough information technology (IT) departments to manage on their own for a while, but the change will leave most companies with a stark choice—continue to use mobile devices that will soon become obsolete or upgrade to a new OS.
For most DCs, the transition will require several steps. First, unless they've purchased new hardware recently, warehouses will need to buy new handheld devices that pack enough memory and computing power to run the next-generation OS. Then they can upgrade their applications and build new links to related software like warehouse management systems (WMS).
Fortunately, that big investment can also generate big returns. "Choosing a new OS, finding the right devices, and modernizing your apps before the 2020 end of extended support will have huge productivity and cost advantages," according to an e-book from Zebra Technologies titled "A smart guide to upgrading your enterprise OS and apps: Extended support for Windows Embedded is ending very soon." Despite the cost of upgrading to a modernized operating system, the transition will leave warehouses with smarter, faster handhelds that can both improve security and enable a more connected work force.THREE OPTIONS FOR UPGRADING
For operations that elect to upgrade to a new OS, the obvious question is which one to go with. In this regard, warehouses have three main options.
One possibility is to stick with Microsoft, which has developed a new OS called Windows 10 IoT to meet demand for next-generation devices. However, while Windows 10 has been well received for use on laptops and other personal computers, its adoption in the rugged handheld sector is very slow, according to Zebra.
"We do have tablets and small handhelds available now on Windows 10 IoT for field mobility applications," said Mark Wheeler, director of supply chain solutions at Zebra Technologies. "But inside the four walls [of the warehouse], we're not seeing customer demand for Windows."
Microsoft itself is offering very little guidance on the issue, with no clear message on its website and no public marketing position. Asked about its strategy for supporting users of enterprise mobile devices after it ends support for the two legacy operating systems, a Microsoft spokesman said the company was unable to provide further information.
A second choice is to switch over to Apple's iOS platform, but that option is also attracting very few users in enterprise applications, Zebra said. As for why Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple has failed to capture a significant slice of the rugged mobile handheld market, it's partly because of the company's exclusive focus on non-ruggedized consumer electronics—such as its popular iPhone and iPad devices—and partly because of Apple's insistence on acting as the sole supplier of hardware devices for its own operating system.
That leaves option number three—Google Inc.'s Android operating system. By all accounts, this is emerging as the leading option for warehouses looking for the next platform for their handheld devices. "Momentum has definitely shifted toward Android as a clear favorite to replace devices running legacy Windows operating systems," Zebra's book said.
Google, a division of Mountain View, Calif.-based Alphabet Inc., appears to be up to the challenge, riding a rising swell of interest among users who have adopted Android in various sectors. The Android OS was used in 80 percent of all smartphones worldwide and in 37 percent of rugged devices in 2016, the latter up from 24 percent the year before, according to a report from VDC Research.DRIVE FOR EFFICIENCY, SECURITY
Another factor pushing warehouses to consider upgrading their mobile devices is the relentless drive for greater efficiency in the DC, said Steve Bemis, vice president of mobile productivity at Ivanti Software Inc., a South Jordan, Utah-based IT management services provider.
Warehouse operators are increasingly looking to upgrade their mobile devices as a way to satisfy demands to rev up productivity while reining in costs, Bemis said. And because current mobile operating systems will be out of service soon, managers must minimize disruption while making that change.
In a recent survey on the market for mobile warehouse devices conducted with VDC, Ivanti found that the number one pressure driving investment in mobile solutions was customer demand for faster orders (55.7 percent), followed by replacing older systems that were incapable of keeping up with these orders (42.1 percent), and the high cost of labor (37.5 percent). The survey polled 107 high-ranking professionals across North America and Europe who are responsible for selecting mobile solutions for use in warehouses and distribution centers.
As for what they're looking for when choosing a new OS, the survey indicated that security was top of mind for many. When respondents were asked about their selection criteria, IT security emerged as the number one consideration (55.1 percent), followed by the ability to customize (34.8 percent) and a modern user interface (30.3 percent).
In fact, one of the benefits of upgrading mobile warehouse devices is that it typically helps strengthen a company's defenses against hackers and viruses. Computer security in the supply chain is a hot issue, highlighted by recent events like the "Petya" bug that triggered a global IT meltdown in June and froze operations at shipping giant Maersk, and the "WannaCry" virus that hit 150 countries in May, locking up thousands of computers and shutting down a Honda car manufacturing plant for a day. Even though mobile computers inside a DC are typically disconnected from the Internet in order to minimize distractions for workers, clever hackers have shown a knack for disrupting enterprise systems.
"I'm shocked that more people aren't talking about [security], especially with the WannaCry virus a few months ago. Being on old systems that do not have security updates is a risky thing," said Ron Kubera, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at mobile technology specialist Lucas Systems. "I want people to start planning, because it's two and a half years away. That's not a long time; if you don't do it this year, you're going to be down to the wire."TECH EXPLOSION IN THE DC
Upgrading to a new OS can also pay dividends by opening the door to a new array of technological capabilities, Kubera said. Virtually all of the next-generation wearable devices such as smartglasses and smartwatches are based on the Android operating system, so they are incompatible with Windows-based applications, he said.
"The advancement of technology in the DC is going to really accelerate, and people aren't ready for it. Android makes it possible to use these new devices," said Kubera. "The level of innovation in the Android universe is unprecedented compared with the Windows ecosystem, and we're already seeing innovation coming from the consumer side into the industry side."
The explosion of consumer-grade interfaces and tools enabled by a next-generation OS could give a shot in the arm to labor productivity in the DC, agrees Joe Vernon at consulting firm Capgemini. The change will happen as warehouses discard their old keyboard-based handheld devices and upgrade to models with larger screens, touchscreen interfaces, and other features typically found on the smartphones employees use in their private lives.
Bringing consumer-grade computing features into the warehouse is another area where Android has the edge over Windows or Apple, Vernon said. "The market has been hungering for screens and programs beyond the restrictions of Windows CE, and Android is more customizable, more nimble," he said. "Android has more shops, local vendors, and lower prices because Android has a larger consumer ecosystem."
Despite the looming deadline of Microsoft's end of support for its legacy mobile OS platforms, businesses don't have to scrap their entire array of handheld devices in a single wave of upgrading, Vernon said. "This is not a Y2K scenario, where you're going to jump off a bridge if you haven't made this change by a deadline," he said, referring to the 1990s-era IT scare that had users worried their computers would malfunction at the turn of the millennium. "You can always start a partial replacement; just pick one or two areas and install Android. For example, use it for [quality assurance] at the inbound dock to do sampling of loads and take pictures."
Whether a warehouse is looking to increase security, boost efficiency, or deploy the latest peripherals, change is in the wind for handheld computers in the DC. With Microsoft planning to withdraw its support for the mobile operating systems that companies have used for decades, players throughout the supply chain will face decisions about choosing a new OS, finding a handheld device to support it, and migrating their apps over to the upgraded platform.
About the Author
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
More articles by Ben Ames
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