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Design Once, Use Many: The Need for a Common Hardware/Software Solution for Mobile Computing

Enterprises are increasingly seeking common hardware and software platforms to support their business class applications. Today’s current challenge is the lack of flexibility with mobile hardware designs that support both small and large screen form factors across ruggedized devices.

BY GEOFF GOETZ, BSQUARE

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If there is one constant in the world of enterprise computing, it is the rapid rate of change. New and better mobility solutions are gathering, analyzing and taking action on ever increasing amounts of data. New hardware form factors - based on multiple operating systems – are emerging to offer increased speed and functionality.  And new applications are being developed to support and customize all of the above.

As enterprises work to manage all of this change within their available resources, one reality is clear. A common platform for enterprise applications, one that cuts across multiple form factors and leverages existing infrastructure investments, would save OEMs and their customers time, money and frustration. This is particularly true in the market for durable and rugged class handheld devices and industrial tablets, which see constant use on the front lines of data acquisition and management.

Market Trends and Realities

Industry analyst VDC’s most recent estimates quantify a 1.1 million installed base of rugged tablets, and an installed base of an additional 15 million rugged handheld devices. In this category, Microsoft holds approximately 85% of the market share with Windows Compact or Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5, the leading OS for rugged handhelds, and Windows 7/8 the leading platform for rugged tablets. The majority of currently available devices, especially handheld terminals, utilize previous generation operating systems that are technologically out of date. While these operating systems still have several years of availability remaining, the success of current generation operating systems such as Android, iOS and Windows Embedded 8.1 Handheld are in question.

A potential way forward is the Windows Embedded 8.1 Handheld Program. However, only a limited number of OEMs have access to this operating system. Additionally, the OS requires the use of Qualcomm processors, which bring inherent engineering and supply chain challenges. This is leading to very limited adoption of Windows Embedded 8.1 Handheld at the OEM and enterprise levels.

Windows 10 Embedded is on the horizon as the next generation operating system. Although technology previews of Windows 10 are currently available, as of this writing there is no official release date nor specific data on processor support. This creates further uncertainty with device manufacturers and enterprises alike who need to make decisions on their own device and application roadmaps. In the face of all this ambiguity, enterprises are examining how to best take advantage of new mobile devices while leveraging existing lines of business applications.

And these new durable class devices are arriving at an alarming clip. iOS and Android-based devices are being deployed in growing numbers, but facing challenges. There are limited enterprise class applications for these operating systems, and IT departments struggle to integrate them.

Because these iOS and Android devices are designed primarily for consumer use, they may require an accessory sled or custom bumper to behave as a ruggedized device. Not surprisingly, they face high failure and damage rates when they are deployed in the market and dropped, smashed or even stolen. The theft rate for iPads and Android tablets in commercial use is quite high – adding to increased investment needs on the part of the customer.

In summary, the market need is growing while the hardware capabilities and operating systems are being challenged as never before. Add to this the need for custom applications that can be deployed across multiple form factors, and you have an environment for OEM and enterprise dissatisfaction.

The Customer’s Perspective

OEM and enterprise customers are straightforward about their needs: they must get to market faster on the most current devices possible. Because it has been a significant length of time from the last major improvement in silicon and OS options for handheld devices, there is a need to rapidly deliver next generation devices. Ideally the OEMs would find a single, combined hardware and software platform with which to create a portfolio of devices that share common applications, user experiences, device management and security.

In reality, many ‘new’ handheld terminal device introductions are in fact based on older silicon or OS, or are consumer class devices devoid of the features and functionality required for true integration into the enterprise. And it is becoming the end of an era. The more traditional handheld devices and applications are reaching the functional end of life, the hardware is reaching the end of its manufacturing cycle, and the operating system and applications features and functionality are outdated.

The need for seamless integration across multiple form factors is particularly pressing. Most enterprise organizations have a growing mobile workforce, and those workers are using a variety of tablets, smartphones and other handheld devices. Some of the devices are based on Windows, others on Android and still others on iOS. How to support this collection of devices, collection of operating systems and myriad of applications is a constant puzzle that drains time and resources.

Ideally the latest generations of technology would be available to, and easily integrated by, these OEMs and enterprises. With the release of Intel’s latest mobile optimized Atom solutions, device manufacturers and enterprises now have a silicon base on which to develop and deploy lines of business solutions using the latest mainstream operating systems such as Windows Embedded 8.1 and Android 4.4. Access to this generation of hardware and software solutions now allows for the development of cross-platform solutions that scale from the smallest of handheld terminals to tablet size and beyond. For example, the development of a line of business application for a Windows 8.1 environment can now be easily scaled from a desktop to a handheld terminal through relatively minor variations in how the application is rendered on multiple screen sizes. To extend this concept, the use of multiple platform development tools such as Xamarin allows for code reuse across differing operating systems, furthering the concept of a true cross platform solution.

The hardware design of ruggedized devices could use improvement. This is where the consumer devices excel: they have a functional elegance that embodies the best of industrial design. However, they are not durable enough to be practical in a rugged commercial environment. Customers want the simplicity of the consumer design with the ruggedness of a durable device.

Supply chain flexibility is another top priority for these OEMs and enterprises. An open supply chain that enables them to source products and services through their existing relationships gives them great flexibility in licensing and the ability to support lower volume manufacturing scenarios but is often not available.

The applications that run on handheld terminals are another important consideration. Significant investments are made in application design, deployment and training so it is crucial that legacy desktop applications are able to flow into the mobile environment. However, moving legacy ‘mobile’ applications requires time consuming rewriting, regardless of the targeted operating system or device type. How an enterprise manages its applications across multiple form factors and operating systems can define a project’s success or failure. A summary of these factors and considerations can be seen in Table 1.

Table 1
Bridging the gap from desktop to mobile solutions.

A Way Forward: A Common Reference Platform

Bsquare MobileV offers a robust, production-ready reference platform running on the Intel Atom Z3745 processor and Windows Embedded 8.1 or Android 4.4. MobileV shortens time to market, lowers development cost and enables differentiated user experiences.  It also delivers cross-platform legacy and modern application support for OEMs who build durable and rugged class handhelds and industrial tablets.

MobileV provides a common reference platform for OEMs building multiple device form factors including durable and rugged class handhelds and industrial tablets. The solution combines Microsoft Windows Embedded 8.1 or Android 4.4 with cutting-edge Intel mobile board reference designs from Aava Mobile, a global leader in tablet and handheld design, along with Bsquare proprietary MobileV UX software.

The technical specifications for the 5” form factor represent one of the first mini-tablets of this size on the Intel and Windows 8 platform.  Technical highlights include the Intel Atom Z3745 quad-core CPU, a 4.7” multi-touch display at 1280x720 pixels, 2 GB RAM, 8MP main and 2MP front cameras, extensive interfaces and sensors to support vertical market use-cases. The standard reference design also allows for inclusion of a 3G/LTE modem for cellular data.  OEMs will also appreciate that this platform has an extended life cycle more in line with enterprise requirements, unlike other consumer grade silicon offerings.  The reference design also delivers characteristics necessary for harsh environment use cases such as ruggedized capabilities such as IP67 ratings, drop resistance and extended temperature operative and storage capabilities.

A reference design includes all the production-ready design files, bill of materials, schematics and Gerber files required to produce the reference design in 5”, 8” or 10” form factors.  Most OEMs will choose to wrap their design in a custom casing that meets their individual branding and usage requirements.

Reducing Development Costs and Time to Market

Getting to market as quickly as possible, and on the most current technology, is one of the top customer concerns. MobileV significantly shortens the traditional OEM development cycle because it is built upon the familiar Microsoft Windows and Android operating systems and leverages production ready Aava Mobile board design files. The customer’s overall cost is lowered by leveraging both internal hardware and software designs across multiple platforms, which helps reduce risk when these proven designs are reused. The hardware manufacturing supply chain is simplified, especially when a design is aggregated over multiple devices. OEMs are experiencing six months or more reduction in their development cycle by eliminating the need for repeat design and layout.

When workers use multiple devices, a consistent interface and experience improves the quality of their output. MobileV UX software is an application layer that extends Windows Embedded 8.1 technology and functionality to small screen enabled devices such as ruggedized handheld terminals and tablets. It enables unified user experiences and profiles across devices and OS platforms, providing a consistent experience and reducing learning curves.

In Figures 1 and 2, one can see that the Windows 8 desktop, although fully functional, may be difficult to use on a mini-tablet form factor.  Mobile UX is implemented with a familiar tile-based interface to simplify app launching, branding, the integration of ‘live tiles’ with web services and the use of user profiles. For consistency, customers can use this experience across their entire portfolio of Windows-based mobile device form factors.

Platform flexibility is another market driver. With MobileV OEMs can increase platform flexibility through the MobileV UX software which delivers multiple display size and resolution, branding, user profiles and support for legacy and modern applications.

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