A retail associate uses a Zebra ET4x enterprise rugged tablet and Zebra Workforce Connect PTT software to speak with an associate in the backroom about a shoe a shopper is looknig for.
By Bruce Willins | February 16, 2023

What (Else) You Need to Know Before Deciding Whether a Consumer or Enterprise Mobile Device is Really the Best Choice for Your Employees – and the Success of Your Business

You asked a lot of questions after my last post making the case for enterprise mobile devices. I attempt to answer them all now.

In my last blog post, I gave many reasons why enterprise mobile customers, with enterprise use cases, should seek enterprise solutions. However, shortly after it published, I started receiving several follow-on questions from customers, partners, industry observers, government officials and even colleagues, including some requests to clarify a few points. So, I thought it would be best to answer them all in this public forum since I suspect many of you have the same questions – and I know you could all benefit from this additional information.

Q: I’m a mid-level manager who has been assigned to evaluate a consumer option for an enterprise application. What single factor should I be most focused on? (You named several in your last post.)

This is an extremely common scenario. If I had to pick only one factor, I’d go with Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)/Total Benefit of Ownership (TBO).   

In line with the shift in many organizations’ thinking from devices-to-solutions, business leaders and line managers are also shifting the way they model their project costs. In the past, business technology decision-makers were ruthlessly focused on the upfront device hardware acquisition cost. As they gained experience with enterprise mobile computer projects, they realized the hardware cost was but a small fraction of the overall cost. They’ve now shifted their focus to overall TCO. This shift in thinking has worked well for enterprise device sales, explaining in part the unprecedented 30% year-over-year (YoY) growth in enterprise unit shipments (in the service available market) from 2020 to 2021.   
In a 2021 VDC Research TCO study (of 200 people managing mobile fleets from 100-20,000 devices), respondents confirmed exactly what we’ve been seeing in the market: 83.5% of enterprise mobile project leaders performed a TCO analysis as part of their solution selection, up sharply from 52% in VDC’s 2018 study.

I want to point out that the 2021 TCO report represents VDC’s third TCO study on enterprise mobile computing (2013, 2018, and 2021). These studies typically are based on feedback from hundreds of information technology decision makers (ITDMs) managing mobile device portfolios from hundreds to tens of thousands of devices. The studies have consistently shown that over a 5-year period, with an average 3.6-year device service life, that the TCO for enterprise rugged devices was significantly lower than that of consumer devices. In some instances, over 50% less.  

The two driving cost factors were lost worker productivity and IT administrative overhead (collectively accounting for 80% of the TCO). As shown in the VDC study, each incident consumes approximately 63 minutes of IT time and has a 72-minute impact on worker productivity. (In a 2016 IDC white paper entitled, “Pay Now, Save Later: The Business Case for Rugged Devices” 80% of 800 respondents said each incident had a minimum two-hour impact. For some, worker downtime lasted for days.”) The VDC study also found that the hardware acquisition cost was typically 10% or less of the TCO and that any upfront premiums for an enterprise class solution were more than offset by TCO benefit (i.e., reduced IT tickets, reduced employee downtime, and longer service life).   
Clearly, every situation is different. TCO involves a complex, multi-variate analysis and will vary from deployment to deployment. The point of my answer is that past studies have shown a significant TCO benefit for enterprise mobility solutions. There is no universal model for TCO, so we strongly recommend that you perform your own analysis. If you need a jump start, the Zebra team can point you to prior studies and/or walk you through our internal TCO/TBO analysis tool.

Q: What exactly is “Total Benefit of Ownership” (TBO)?

TBO is the counterpart of TCO. Both add to the bottom-line financials. TBO measures positive benefits in productivity. Here again, there is a difference between a consumer mobile device and an enterprise mobility solution.  

Barcode scanning is a perfect example. A recent U.S. Ergonomics (U.S. Ergo) study commissioned by Zebra found that Zebra dedicated imaging subsystems with complementary decode software (such as those found in many enterprise mobile computers) provided significant gains in speed and efficiency of scanning while reducing physical demands on front-line workers. As compared to consumer camera-based systems, U.S. Ergo testers found imagers resulted in faster item pick times (25%-40%) and less muscle work (23%-48%) when certain Zebra enterprise mobile computers were used. Depending on the specific application, you can expect a 1.8x to 2.3x productivity improvement, which is to be expected considering the Zebra devices were designed for these specific applications. The ergonomics lend themselves to a more efficient workflow because they were tailored purposely to those workflows – just like a truck is designed for off-road towing and a Ferrari is not. (You can find the U.S. Ergo study results and analysis commentaries from my colleagues here and here.)  
Of course, TBO extends to other enterprise automated data capture functionality such as RFID and advanced image processing (i.e., OCR and ICR). TBO also extends to enterprise solution software utilities such as Zebra’s enterprise keyboard, which enables enterprise customers to customize data entry, improving both speed and accuracy of data inputs.

Q: We all know that accessories have become a critical part of enterprise deployments. Should this influence my decision? 

Most definitely. The overall smartphone accessory market in 2020 was over $278 billion USD according to Next Move Strategy Consulting, and the market is expected to have a $413 billion USD value by 2030. Enterprise accessories represent a minute fraction of this market but are no less strategic. They are also highly specialized.  Enterprise accessories come in all shapes and sizes: soft goods (i.e., straps and holsters), mounts and mounting racks, protective cases, cables, charging cradles, active sleds (i.e., UHF RFID readers), battery options, display extenders, rugged headsets and more.

Though some people try, enterprise accessorizing of consumer devices poses several challenges. It can be difficult to find accessories that fit and ensure the accessories are qualified for the device (or enterprise). It’s also hard to sustain compatibility of accessories from one generation of devices to the next, which makes it nearly impossible to reduce the number of accessory suppliers you must work with to accomplish your goal. 

Taking this one step further, you start to see all the interactions of the different elements we are discussing.  Over the years, whenever we have released a new mobile device at Zebra, one of the first questions asked by customers has been, “Will my existing accessories and batteries work on the new device?”  Though backward and forward compatibility is not guaranteed 100% of the time, enterprise mobile device OEMs do spend significant time and money to assure that past accessories are forward compatible with new devices as much as possible. This has not generally been the case for consumer devices. Think about how many times your smartphone has shrunk in size only to grow double in size a few years later (each time requiring you to get new cases, mounts and more.) 

Recognizing the strategic nature of accessories to enterprise customers, Zebra has created an ecosystem of over 1,800 qualified accessories throughout the years guaranteed to operate/interoperate with Zebra products.  

Q: We are increasingly living in an eco-conscious world. Many companies are investing heavily into “green” initiatives. Should environmental impact be a consideration when deciding between consumer and enterprise device options? 

Yes, now more than ever. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) priorities, along with steps to reduce one’s carbon footprint, are key influences on technology buying decisions these days. It’s relatively straightforward that the longer service life of an enterprise class device has a direct positive ecological benefit compared to short-lived consumer offerings. How, you ask?

Let’s start with the disposal of devices. A recent estimate indicates that Americans alone dispose of 416,000 smartphones each day (equaling 151 million per year). A study done by McMaster University in Canada states: “Among all the devices, trends suggest that by 2020, the most damaging devices to the environment are smartphones.”   
Now, let’s consider the raw materials it takes to make replacement devices. Smartphones contain a high degree of rare earth metals such as gold. These metals require large amounts of energy to process. It takes approximately 20 tons of ore to process one ounce of gold.  
Thus, the 2-5x longer service life of enterprise class devices offers a significant reduction in carbon footprint.

Q: What exactly does “long service life” entail? 

Long service life is a key driver in reducing TCO.  We often use the three-legged stool metaphor to describe service life:  

     1).  How long is the device available for sale?

     2).  How long can the hardware be serviced?

     3).  How long are software/security updates available?

The service life of Zebra devices is expressed in two digits, either: “3/3,” “4/4,” or “5/5.”  The first digit represents the number of years the device is available for sale (i.e., the first leg of the stool). Thus a 5/5 product is available for sale for five years (relative to the product first customer ship date, or FCS). This compares to a typical consumer solution of approximately 18 months.

The second and third legs of the stool are reflected in the second digit, which represents the additional number of years that the device is available for hardware services and software/security support beyond the sales cycle. Thus, a 5/5 device is available for sale for five years and is available for hardware servicing and software/security support for an additional five years (10 years total). Though consumer device life cycles and support periods vary by vendor, in almost all instances they fall well short of these periods.  

Q: You talk about life cycle length. But how often are other organizations really being impacted by the short sales cycles of consumer devices?

Imagine you’ve just finished your initial rollout and you’re already faced with an end-of-sale. Now what? Several enterprise customers procuring consumer devices have told us they’ve been in this position, and they didn’t like it. It’s no secret that consumer smartphone manufacturers are about churn. They release a device, sell hundreds of millions of units in 12-15 months, execute an end-of-sale, then repeat the cycle. Several years back, a transportation and logistics (T&L) customer told me that they selected a consumer device shortly after its initial ship date. Even with an early start, they still faced an end-of-sale almost immediately after completing their initial rollout. Rolling out a mobile solution takes a long time given the multiple phases that must be completed: discovery, evaluation and testing, integration, procurement, contracts, repatriation of old devices, staging, provisioning and deployment and so on.

(This is a great read when you have a few minutes: Secrets to a Smooth System Migration: A Step-by-Step Guide for All Technology Owners, Operators and Overseers
Given a premature consumer device end-of sale, you will be faced with two options:

  1. Place a large last-time-buy order (a high risk, significant capital outlay), or

  2. Procure the next generation of devices, creating a mixed portfolio, increasing administrative costs and complexity.  

Neither option sounds appealing, does it? 

Q: How important are security patches and how does this play into service life? 

Security patching or “patch hygiene” is a key element of service life and a major differentiator between consumer devices and enterprise mobility solutions. To quote a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) study on enterprise mobile security best practices, “when a device model is no longer supported with updates, enterprises should decommission those devices.”  

There have been numerous cases where attacks could have been thwarted had entities been more vigilant in applying security patches. A great example was “WannaCry,” which impacted Microsoft platforms. It was a highly publicized ransomware attack that could have been mitigated had customers installed a Microsoft patch which was made available three months prior to the WannaCry outbreak.

In general, consumer mobility offerings provide two-to-five years of security patches. Zebra products range from six years (3/3) to 10 years (5/5). This means that, in many instances, Zebra provides patches beyond what is available from Google (typically 3-3.5 years after the open source release of an OS). 

Q: What are the typical mobile device service life expectations among Zebra’s customers? (I’m curious if we’re being reasonable in our expectations.)

Service life expectations vary dramatically from customer to customer, by vertical to vertical, and by use case to use case. A past survey of Zebra partners asked, “How long are mobile computer products expected to be used before renewal/refresh?” Over half (58%) of the 2619 respondents said five or more years. A Zebra channel monitor survey (with 1212 respondents answering the same question) showed a worldwide average of 4.9 years.   

On a very positive note, we’ve seen our customers become increasingly pragmatic over service life expectations.  Customers who in the past have said they’d just rip-and-replace their portfolio every two years (which is typical with consumer devices) have changed their tune. These same customers are now saying they’ll keep the enterprise devices in service as long as they can. We believe that this is driven by an increased awareness of the costs and business impact to “rip-and-replace” a mobile computing portfolio, and the fact that their fleet sizes are smaller and therefore more manageable. They no longer have to buy extra devices in case some fail. They trust the enterprise devices to perform at a consistently high level, and they have the software tools and support resources they need to properly maintain those devices to extend the service life.

Q: My personal smartphone is about two years old, and I have noticed the battery life is rapidly diminishing. How does this fit with a longer service life?

The topic of batteries touches on multiple points of differentiation between consumer and enterprise mobility platforms. Consumer devices typically do not have “swappable” batteries. Quite often, enterprise usage models extend beyond a single battery charge. (Think 10–12-hour shifts in the field or 18+ hours of continuous use by retail store or warehouse associates who hand off devices between shifts.) If the battery is not replaceable, the associate must swap the depleted device with a freshly charged device. Thus, two devices are required instead of one device with a swappable battery. It’s not cost effective or a good use of space and IT resources.  

Though select consumer/prosumer devices may have removable batteries, you should determine if the battery is “swappable” or “replaceable.”  A “swappable” battery supports repeated replacement (i.e., a shift worker).  The mechanical structure of a replaceable battery is designed for a very small number of replacements (i.e., 1-2).  Even with a swappable battery, you should verify that the device sealing is maintained after repeated swaps. You may also want to confirm whether the battery is “hot-swappable,” which is generally relegated to enterprise mobility solutions and designed to keep the device powered up during the battery swap. 
Finally, battery life cycle management is critical to enterprise mobility solutions. Batteries have a life cycle in which charge capacity diminishes after a series of recharge cycles. Enterprise mobility solutions have features that enable IT managers to determine the current life cycle state of the battery within a device. With this visibility, batteries can be proactively replaced, avoiding lost worker productivity and poor customer satisfaction created by frequent dead batteries.  

Q: You mentioned the advantages of enterprise devices from a drop and tumble perspective. But what about temperature tolerance? Is there any difference between consumer and enterprise devices?

I’ve got two anecdotal customer stories on this one, both with Apple devices. One was a company with a direct-store-delivery (DSD) model and the other an amusement park operator. Both were trialing iPhones for front-line/field-based workers. As Apple states on its website, “Use iOS and iPadOS devices where the ambient temperature is between 0º and 35º C (32º to 95º F).” Most of us (yes, I’ve had Apple devices) at one time or another have been greeted by a locked device, with the message: “iPhone needs to cool down.”

In the case of the DSD customer, I had recently highlighted Apple’s temperature limits in a presentation. Not so long thereafter, I received a call from the customer, “I left the iPhone on my dash and came back to the over temperature message you described. True I’m in Texas. But it’s November!”  

In the amusement park example, I asked specifically whether they were experiencing over-temp issues. (The park is based in the southern U.S.) I was told that they were experiencing over-temp issues, and associates were putting their devices inside the ice cream carts to cool down.

This isn’t to say that consumer devices are not useful in warm climates. It is simply to bring awareness that productivity can be impacted when consumer devices are exposed to relatively harsh environmental conditions.

Q: What should I look for regarding the underlying processor (system on a chip, or SoC) used in an enterprise mobility solution?  

You should consider the typical attributes of an SOC (i.e., processing performance) while also understanding the context of the SoC, which can greatly impact technical support and service life. Supply chain plays a major role in meeting enterprise service life expectations and providing adequate customer support. The best example I can give is Qualcomm. 

The majority of Zebra devices use a Qualcomm SoC. This is the heart and brains of a device, impacting almost all functionality in the device. Qualcomm recognizes that the needs of our enterprise customers differ from those of consumer device users. Thus, the SoCs they build for enterprise use are offered through a separate internet of things (IoT) business unit (aka “Connected Smart Systems”) from their consumer SoC releases. As compared to their consumer offerings, the IoT SoC offerings have support for one or more additional OS releases, longer sales availability (usually an additional 3-4 years), extended software support for security patches and critical bug fixes, high-touch issue escalation, and support for customizations.  Among recent Qualcomm SoC offerings, parts with a “QCM” or “QCS” prefix are from the IoT group, while parts prefixed with “SD” are from the consumer mobile team. Zebra mid- and premium-tier devices are based on Qualcomm IoT solutions. 

Q: Is Samsung offering a proprietary version of Android? 

I wouldn’t call it proprietary, but Samsung does have functionality that competes with what I would call Google standard Android. Many years back, Zebra attempted to take a similar approach by building an enterprise user interface (UI), similar to what Samsung now offers as the One UI. Our enterprise customers violently rejected this approach, stating they want a standardized, consistent experience for their associates. They didn’t want to have to deal with different UIs if they had a mixed brand mobile device fleet. What we have seen is that Samsung frequently offers services competing with those offered by Google which fragments the Android experience.   

Let’s go a bit deeper. In Android, the core OS is Android Open Source Project (AOSP). In addition to AOSP, most Android compatible devices bundle Google Mobile Services (GMS), which is made available from Google at no charge. All such devices must meet Google compatibility definition document (CDD) and compatibility test suite (CTS) requirements, which assures application compatibility and elements of a common user experience (UX). GMS extends Android capabilities and is widely recognized as an integral part of Android functionality. 

Here’s where the differences come in…

In many instances Samsung attempts to compete with GMS and Google services. For example:

  • Google has “Play Store,” while Samsung has “Galaxy Apps.” 

  • Google has “Google Accounts,” and Samsung has “Samsung Accounts.” 

  • Google has “Zero Touch” and Samsung has “Knox Mobile Enrollment.” 

  • Google has “Google Voice Assistant,” and Samsung has “Bixby.” 

  • Google = Chrome browser. Samsung = Samsung Internet.  

  • Finally, Samsung has its proprietary “One UI.”  

I’m not saying the Samsung solutions are better or worse than those from Google. They are just different, which can increase complexity for anyone trying to build and manage a high-performing, reliable mobile device fleet for their organization. 

My Zebra colleagues and I are not the only ones to observe this situation. In 2019, VDC did a survey of enterprise OEM sales partners to get their feedback. VDC asked, “To what extent would you agree with the following statement? ‘Samsung has introduced many services and features that are competing against Google/Android (i.e., Knox Mobile Enrollment vs Google Zero Touch).’” The results confirmed our thoughts: 70% responded “significantly” and less than 1% said “not at all.”  

Again, I’m not saying the Samsung features are better or worse than Google’s. They are just different. Having both sets of features presents a challenge for businesses.  

The Last Word (from Someone Other Than Me) 

You’ve now heard me repeatedly make the case for enterprise devices over consumer devices for business use. But it may help for you to hear what unbiased industry analysts have to say about the consumer vs enterprise debate (even though many have independently confirmed my observations). 

Here is a small sampling from several different analysts in recent years: 

Gartner said in the “Market Guide for Ruggedized Devices, Global” published March 28, 2022*:

“We are starting to see a fair number of clients that transitioned from ruggedized equipment to COTS (commercial off the shelf) returning to ruggedized equipment. ...The return to ruggedized devices is leading to a positive impact on productivity and reduced overall risk.”

IDC reported in its 2020 U.S. Enterprise Mobility Decision Maker Survey:

“The adoption of rugged mobile devices among large enterprises is strong overall, with 41% of U.S. enterprises currently using and planning to purchase more rugged devices in 2021.”

Northcoast Research, describing the shift from consumer Apple devices to enterprise mobile computers in a 2016 report:

“I think retail executives are on the cusp of abandoning the iPhone and coming back to mobile computers…the total cost of ownership is horrible. The lower training costs and appeal of a simple phone just did not work out too well when the battery life couldn’t make a full shift and it just did not have the functionality they needed.”

VDC said in its 2017 report, “Rugged Handheld Computers and Smartphones for Line-of-Business Applications”:

“Another key development over the past year has been the end of the honeymoon for many enterprise attempts to use consumer grade mobile devices – in particular iOS devices – over special purpose ruggedized handheld devices.”

If you are still considering consumer devices for your employees, let’s have a conversation first. I’m also happy to connect you with customers and analysts who can share their personal experiences and observations regarding consumer mobile device deployments. And, of course, I can answer any further questions you may have. 


Related Reads:

* Gartner “Market Guide for Ruggedized Devices, Global" Published 28 March 2022 - ID G00763042 - By Analyst(s): Leif-Olof Wallin, Tim Zimmerman Initiatives: Digital Workplace Infrastructure and Operations

Energy and Utilities, Best Practices, Healthcare, Manufacturing, Warehouse and Distribution, Transportation and Logistics, Retail, Field Operations, Hospitality, Public Sector,
Bruce Willins
Bruce Willins

Bruce Willins is a Technology Solutions Engineering Fellow at Zebra Technologies. 

He has over 30 years of experience in the marketing and development of high technology products and has served in numerous senior level positions, including Vice President of Engineering for Hauppauge Computer, Vice President of R&D at Symbol Technologies, Vice President of Engineering / General Manager, Strategic Business at SMC Networks and President/Founder of Netways Inc.  

Mr Willins is a past member of the Motorola Science Advisory Board (SABA) and a Symbol Technologies Fellow.  He is the recipient of the IEEE Charles Hirsch award, has numerous patents and is a frequent lecturer.

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