How to Turn Your Workers’ Mobile Devices into Desktop Workstations on Demand – and Why You Should Even Want To

Organizations must be able to do more with less. They must also find new ways to improve customer experiences and worker productivity. Now they can, thanks to the flexibility of the new Zebra TC52ax Android™ 11 Wi-Fi 6 mobile computer + Workstation Connect solution.

A retail associate docks her TC52ax mobile computer in the Workstation Connect cradle to transform it into a desktop computing solution.
by Lesly Gonzalez
August 11, 2021

This blog post was collaboratively written with John Pomerleau, an Advanced Product Manager at Zebra who has been leading the TC5X product family.

Deadwood and dormant desktop computers are real problems in retail, distribution and warehousing environments right now. So too are dropped wireless connections among staff who use mobile computers to guide their every decision and action, especially when they’re rushing from one side of the building to the next or in and out of the parking lot, trying to pick, pack, and deliver customer orders.

Along those same lines, asking a customer to meet an associate at “the desk” clear across the store – or even a few aisles over – to process a customized order or complete a simple purchase transaction certainly does not embody a “frictionless” shopping experience. Neither does asking them to wait five minutes once they get there for the associate to…

  • login to the hard-wired desktop computer…
  • wait for the page to load…
  • transfer data already captured on the mobile device to the desktop system…
  • or manually lookup information that could have easily been retrieved with a barcode scan on the floor.

If an associate has to hunt for an item that appears to be in stock but isn’t in sight, they must be able to find it fast. If they need to track down a ladder to see what’s on a top shelf because their barcode scanner doesn’t reach that far, or they don’t even know the department or shelf in which an item *should* be located, customers might say “forget it.” Some might even abandon their entire cart, figuring they’ll just get everything at once when they find a store that has what they need on the shelf. The same scenario is possible at a restaurant or hotel, where guests expect top-notch service.

That’s why I’m rallying retailers, hospitality leaders, distributors, and warehouse operators in every sector to rethink how, when, and where they’re using different types of mobile devices within their facilities. I’m also challenging them to consider whether anything but mobile computers are needed on the floor. (Even managers don’t spend much time at a desk these days.)

Mobile Devices Aren’t Just for Use on the Move – At Least Not Anymore

Over the past couple years, we have had several conversations with our customers about what a multipurpose 2-in-1-type handheld device might look like in a retail store, distribution center or warehouse. Most of their teams are highly mobile, so they need smaller lightweight devices that can be carried either in hand or as a wearable for workers to pick, pack, put away, count, or price check items. Tablets can be great for mobile point-of-sale (POS) teams or floor supervisors who need to be able to see more visual data such as planograms, schedules or dashboards. But they aren’t typically the right form factor in situations where multiple barcodes must be scanned, boxes unpacked, or bags loaded into vehicles every minute of every day.

That’s why the rugged handheld mobile computers within the Zebra TC5x Series have been so popular with both front-of-store and back-of store teams for so long. With just a single, one-handed scan, all kinds of information can be extracted from a barcode – and several different questions answered for customers. The smaller form factor device can also be clipped on a belt when workers need to free up their hands to get items off pallets, on shelves and in carts or cars quickly and safely.

Despite the many benefits and growing capabilities of handheld mobile computers, though, some things are just easier to see and do on a 20-inch display or with a full-sized keyboard and mouse. Having to manually input customer data, build customized orders, get signoff of product designs, or review more detailed spreadsheet reports are all great examples. So, retailers, warehouse and distribution center operators had previously set up workstations with traditional desktop computers for floor workers and store managers to use as needed for those few things too challenging to do on a mobile device screen.

However, now that mobility solutions have matured, workers and managers are making fewer trips to these desktop-computer workstations, rendering traditional desktop computers somewhat obsolete. A combination of new hardware and software capabilities is leading to greater mobile optimization of forms, reports, task lists, and more. And tasks that occasionally require access to a full-size screen, keyboard use or connection to other peripherals can be now easily managed through mobile workstations – workers don’t need to log into separate desktop computers anymore.

What that means is that you can probably reduce the number of desktop workstations on the floor, replacing them with mobile workstations, accessible on demand.

And now that Zebra Workstation Connect can turn the newest-generation, Android™ 11 Wi-Fi 6 TC5x mobile computer – the TC52ax – into a fully-featured desktop computer with a simple drop into the workstation cradle, you can probably eliminate traditional desktop computers from the equation. (As well as the time and expense of providing hardwire ethernet at the workstation.)

That’s right: there’s now an authentic 2-in-1-type handheld mobile/desktop computing solution that (we believe) checks every box for retailers, hoteliers, restaurateurs, manufacturers, distributors, warehouse operators and even many government agencies!

Since I know someone will ask: no, this is not another “mirror-mode” solution.

Once the new Zebra TC52ax mobile computer is docked in a workstation cradle, it converts into a mobile-driven workstation, running a separate desktop user interface on the large screen from what is currently shown on the mobile device screen. It doesn’t just project what’s on the small screen to the large screen. It completely switches modes, using desktop resolution to turn the mobile computer into the “desktop” computer.

Workers can set up shortcuts, use task bars, resize windows and open multiple apps in multiple windows like they would with a traditional desktop terminal. And, unlike the old-school workstation setups, they can also work on different applications on the mobile device and desktop simultaneously. For example, they can connect a headset and use the mobile computer to make a push-to-talk (PTT) or PBX call to colleagues across the store, at other stores, in the warehouse or on the road while it’s docked, running as a “desktop” on the large screen. This enables them to get the answers customers need and process orders simultaneously.

Another example is worker training. If they need to watch a training video on the big screen, no problem. Just plug a speaker or headphones into the workstation cradle; it can connect multiple peripherals. Want to print a customer contact sheet, receipt, report or other full-page document from “desktop” device? Easy. The TC52ax + Workstation Connect setup has input/output (I/O) ports for a printer, mouse and keyboard.

In other words, anyone who has a TC52ax is essentially walking around with a desktop computer at their fingertips. They can zoom through tasks and deliver a top-notch customer experience, no matter their role or proximity to an actual desktop PC. And IT can easily control what workers can access and display in both mobile and desktop modes based on their roles.

That’s right: you no longer have to figure out the “perfect place” to put a workstation in your retail store, distribution center or warehouse, and IT no longer has to maintain desktop workstation computers that may only be used once a week, if that. There is just one mobile computer with advanced barcode scanning capabilities for your team to configure, learn, carry, use and manage whenever/wherever necessary from now on.

(Was that a sigh of relief I just sensed?)

One Device, Two Modes, Three “Firsts” – All of Which Equate to Countless Benefits for You

Not to pile on the good news (who would want that?) but the new TC52ax is also a Wi-Fi 6 device! Zebra’s first, actually.

It’s also Zebra’s first Android™ 11-based handheld enterprise mobile computer! (And one that will be supported through Android 14.)

That’s not all! It’s also the first Zebra handheld mobile computer to offer IntelliFocus™ through the brand new SE5500 Advanced Range scan engine, ushering in a whole new generation of scanning capabilities. Its intelligent autofocus technology works extremely fast and will reliably scan any barcode a TC52ax user puts in front of it, whether it’s on the very top shelf over 40 ft./12 m* away or on an item they have in their hand. (*Actual scan distance is determined by symbology type and size as well as barcode and lighting conditions.)

The best part is that because of its range, workers no longer have to walk, bend or reach to get a good shot. Nor do they have to waste time or test their patience trying to perfectly aim a little red dot on a barcode that’s three or four stories in the air – a barcode they may not even be able to find in the first place without getting out that ladder or lift truck. The best-in-class green laser aimer, designed for an extended scanning range, is up to seven times more visible than a red laser, and its aiming pattern spreads out over several feet. This makes it easy to see the barcode from a distance in virtually any lighting condition and capture all barcode data the first time, every time. So, to be fair, the TC52ax + Workstation Connect is really more like a 3-in-1 solution since it’s also an incredibly versatile, high power, far-reaching barcode scanner!

Did I mention that you’ll also have the option to turn on Zebra’s famous (and wildly helpful) Device Tracker to find TC52ax devices that may go missing? (My colleague Dave Degrassi talks about how this beaconing technology helps you keep devices from permanently disappearing in this blog post, even if their batteries die before you find them.)

If you think about all the features and capabilities of this 3-in-1 solution holistically, it means:

  • fewer devices to maintain now and replace down the line. Even though this solution requires some time and financial investment upfront, it will reduce the pressure on IT and save you money in the long run. And, as you add other Zebra mobile computers and tablets to your corporate-owned device fleet in the future, workers will be able to just drop those devices into their respective Workstation Connect cradles to get the same full desktop experience as your TC52ax users.
  • more space in your stores and on your workstation surfaces. The mobile workstation can be configured as needed, and it does need a lot of real estate space.
  • a smaller learning curve for workers. They are probably already familiar with Zebra Android mobile devices, and now they will get the benefit of a true desktop experience. (Even if they’re first time Zebra devices users, they may be comfortable with the Android OS from their personal device usage and appreciate not having to learn how to use a separate desktop computer at work.)
  • a larger business case for upgrading your workers to Wi-Fi 6 mobile computers sooner than later. Enterprise mobility expert Bruce Willins gives the scoop on the many benefits of Wi-Fi 6 compared to Wi-Fi 5 and even 5G in this interview.
  • faster service and better experiences for customers who must accompany an associate to a desk for further assistance. The workstations are going to be so well equipped and the mobile-to-desktop transition so seamless, both customers and workers are going to notice the difference. Expect them to be wowed by how smooth the shopping or workflow experience is now compared to “then.”
  • better setups for employees so they can, in turn, better support customers.

I think this last point sums up the benefit best.

The work experience is changing. And transformative new technologies such as the TC52ax, Workstation Connect and IntelliFocus make it possible for organizations to design workspaces that match the needs of their highly mobile workers and time-sensitive customers.

In fact, if I had a crystal ball, I’d say the days of blaming technology – or lacking tech capabilities – for bottlenecked workflows, stalled fulfillment, lost sales, and risky moves (to reach far-off barcodes) could soon be long gone. But I don’t.

I have had something better these past several months, though: a front-row seat during the development and piloting of the TC52ax with Workstation Connect solution. I’ve seen what it can do, especially when the optional SE5500 Advanced Range scan engine is added into the mix. (The IntelliFocus technology is impressive.)  

So, what I can tell you is that this one voice-enabled Wi-Fi 6 *mobile* computing and scanning device is extremely versatile both as a handheld device and desktop replacement. It can effectively orchestrate most retail, distribution and warehousing workflows from start to finish, with no exceptions, empowering workers can get things done quickly and safely. They won’t have to go out of their way to retrieve the information they need or persistently thank customers for their patience, as they can effortlessly transition from one task to another, using just one mobile device.

You can get rid of the deadwood and dead weight (i.e., desktops) and let go of any worries you may have about dropped calls or slow download speeds on overloaded wireless or old wired networks. And customers get the frictionless shopping experience they desire, whether that’s online via click and collect or in store at the (now mobile on-demand) desk.

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Editor’s Note:

The Zebra TC52ax Android 11 Wi-Fi 6 mobile computer with Workstation Connect are now available worldwide. The optional SE5500 scan engine with IntelliFocus technology will be available in Q4 2021. If you’re curious about how the solution could help transform your mobile workflows and/or desktop-dependent processes, visit our website or contact a Zebra representative to schedule a discovery workshop.

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Lesly Gonzalez
Lesly Gonzalez is currently a Senior Product Manager for Enterprise Mobile Computing (EMC) at Zebra Technologies responsible for Emerging Solutions, which includes Workstation Connect. Lesly has more than 15 years of experience in new product development and management including telecommunications, enterprise software and hardware products.