Rethinking Rugged in Retail
The decision by Lowes to deploy over 40K Apple iPhones as their next-generation mobile solution for store associates is sending shock waves through the industry and is suggestive of a potentially larger trend in the retail segment. Looking at this decision as purely a low cost alternative to deploying the more common rugged handhelds is oversimplifying this development (although we do think device price played an important role). Rather this decision is a part of a broader customer service and engagement strategy which is consistent with our retail research findings. According to VDC's most recent end user research, behind employee productivity improvements, customer engagement and service has emerged as the second leading enterprise mobility investment driver among retail organizations.
As part of this deployment, Lowes is also replacing over 70K computer screens with flat panels and is also adding in-store WiFi for customers to improve their shopping experience. In addition the company has also recently launched a series of B2C mobile applications. [Note: In 2010 Home Depot, Lowes' largest competitor, made a major investment in rugged handheld devices from Motorola for similar applications].
As a result of this decision we have several observations and concerns:
- What impact will the have for the broader rugged mobile market in the retail segment? While level of ruggedness ranked low as an overall device purchase criteria (#8) in our most recent retail technology decision maker research, it ranked relatively high as a device shortcoming (#4). Clearly there is something unique about the personal relationship of smartphone and the user that would perhaps cause the user to be more careful with the device (possibly reducing drops). However, these devices will be dropped and displays will crack (just look at what happens to Spectralink phones at Lowes today). While the iPhone in Lowes will not be entirely unprotected (it will be used with a credit card swipe sheath that will offer some protection) the question, perhaps, becomes one of rethinking the value of rugged in the context of new mobile use cases and the personalization of these devices (in addition to the generational shift in the workforce).
- What is clear, however, is that existing rugged mobile solutions are behind the curve – from a form factor, UI, etc. – point of view with next generation requirements. End users want to interface with devices through touchscreens / multi-touch displays. Forward thinking enterprises want to leverage these interfaces to deliver a more engaging experience with end users. Keyboards and pen input are increasingly not preferred interfaces for mobile devices in retail environments. Larger displays with intuitive interfaces are critical – especially for customer facing applications. Ease of use is being identified as a major device shortcoming – especially among retail organizations. While rugged vendors have sold their devices on the merits of their durability supporting mission critical workflows they (and their ISV partners) have fallen well short of providing solutions with an intuitive and easy to use interface on par with today's consumer devices. Do these decisions (Lowes) portend a more rapid migration away from legacy platforms?
- Conversely, however, looms the fact that consumer devices have been designed for consumers (and not enterprises). How these devices will respond to the level of interaction associated with enterprise workflows remains to be seen. One critical concern will be battery life – especially for power hungry smartphones. Can they support a full shift? How long will it take to reload the battery? Can the battery be replaced? According to our end user research, battery life is the top mobile device selection concern for retail organizations. Moreover, how will these new platforms interface with existing back-end systems and what security issues may be exposed? Finally - although we have been observing Apple's increased focus on the enterprise and selling to enterprises - how will Apple handle enterprise account management decisions? Who is providing support? Training? Maintenance services and other professional services?
Although this development invites perhaps more questions than it does provide clear answers it does give heed to the concern that the rugged mobile community has long held. However, lets not let this recent development inspire us to eulogize the rugged market. Rugged remains highly relevant across a variety of industries, usage environments and mission critical workflows. Rather, let the rugged mobile community use this as a definitive wake up call (and I am deliberately over-dramatizing for effect here) that referencing IP ratings and drop specs is not how one sells enterprise mobility solutions.