A retail store associate uses at Zebra TC53 enterprise mobile computer for assisted selling
By Bruce Willins | February 08, 2023

Twenty-Three Years Later, Are We Really Still Debating the Value of Enterprise vs Consumer Devices?

Let’s talk about why enterprise mobility solutions are better suited than consumer market offerings in retail, hospitality and other business applications.

The year was 2000. Compaq had just released the iPAQ H3600 Pocket PC. There were those who believed this was the beginning of the end for “enterprise devices.”  But nothing else would be further from reality. To quote Mark Twain, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”  

From 2017 to 2021, the rugged enterprise mobile solutions served-available-market (SAM) grew at a CAGR of ~9%. In 2021, the SAM grew at an astounding 31%. Many who attempted to deploy consumer devices in enterprise applications reported poor employee satisfaction, losses in worker productivity, and a high total cost of ownership (TCO).  We’ve had numerous customers that went from enterprise-grade mobility solutions to consumer devices and then back to enterprise solutions. A recent IDC study stated that 41% of U.S. enterprises are currently using and planning to purchase more rugged devices.   

Yet, I still hear lots of people asking, “Are enterprise or consumer devices better for business use?”  

So, let me share what I’ve learned about the differences between enterprise and consumer mobile computing solutions in my 23 years of personal experience, as well as the numerous independent studies, anecdotal stories, and direct customer and partner feedback that I’ve received and may help you decide what’s best for your workers and business overall.   

Q: Is there really a difference between enterprise and consumer devices?  

I often answer this question with a single picture. It’s a bright red Ferrari stuck in the desert, sand spraying out the rear tires as it tries to break free. A Ferrari is a great car, but not in the desert. Consumer smartphones are great devices, but often fall short in enterprise use cases.  

One mobile technology trend my colleagues and I have observed over the years is a change in scope.  In the last 5-10 years, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in how enterprise customers – which includes everyone from retailers and restaurateurs to manufacturers, healthcare providers, utility providers and governments – evaluate their mobile strategy. They’ve gone from a very narrow “device-centric” focus to a much broader “solution” mindset. Several years back, a director of a major U.S. retailer making the transition from a consumer device to an enterprise solution, said it perfectly: “Last time I picked a device. This time I’m picking a partner.”  

Customers have repeatedly told us they have broadened the scope of their evaluations to a more comprehensive “mobile solution” view. For example, they now look at a vendor’s business model to validate that…

  • it is consistent with their needs and requirements.  

  • the supplier can support a high-touch engagement, which is common to enterprise rollouts.  

  • the overall service life of the solution can meet their needs.  

  • an escalation process exists that can meet enterprise real-time response times/resolutions.  

  • software stability overrides rapid time to market.  

  • security is commensurate with mission-critical use cases.  

  • IT administrative support and enterprise mobility management (EMM) solution testing gets the necessary focus demanded by enterprise customers.  

  • customizations and willingness to work 1:1 with customers is a reality.  

  • an ecosystem of enterprise accessories has been developed and validated.  

I’m not saying that the device is insignificant. It is, however, just one factor in a complex tradeoff analysis required for mobilization of your workforce, business systems, information, and entire operation. 

Q: Do consumer and enterprise vendors have different business models?

Yes. Consumer device manufacturers and resellers focus on high volume and churn. Enterprise solution providers focus on high-touch and long service life. It’s not that one is better than the other, they are just different. In 2021, Samsung shipped nearly 31,000 units per hour, 24 hours/day, 365 days/year. (Apple shipped approximately 27,000/units per hour). In less than half a day, Samsung and Apple each shipped more devices than Zebra (the enterprise market share leader) ships in one year.  

This high unit volume, along with a huge installed base and rapid churn, drives what can and cannot be done by consumer device original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Imagine you are customer with 10,000 units in the field, and you need a minor software modification/customization or support for a complex problem. You call Samsung, who has approximately 1 billion active units in the field. In 20 minutes, they sell more units than your entire rollout. Will you get the attention and mindshare you need?

Though Zebra can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to implement every custom request, we do have a “custom-product-request” (CPR) program which averages over 100 enterprise customer driven software/feature add-ons per year.   
In other words, the consumer model is a great business model. It’s just not scalable when you are dealing with high-touch enterprise customers running mission-critical applications. It’s something you need to keep in mind when making a technology purchase decision for your organization.

Q: Has the expansion of use cases for mobile devices had an impact on the consumer vs. enterprise discussion?

The use of enterprise mobile devices has radically expanded. As such, many of our customers are categorizing their requirements into “personas.” Each persona brings a different set of requirements. The challenge they (and you) will face most often is how to address the needs of these different personas while avoiding a costly, difficult to maintain, fragmented environment of mobile solutions. Consumer vendors/devices tend to be one-dimensional, meaning they are only focused on meeting the needs of a single persona. In contrast, enterprise vendors/solutions are commonly built to fulfill the needs of multiple personas while maintaining a high degree of operational synergy.  Enterprise vendors often used the term “platforming,” which in my opinion is really a story about synergies and leverage across an entire portfolio of devices.  

Let’s take retail as an example. We often see four personas: 

  1. Warehouse/distribution center (DC)

  2. Back of store

  3. Front of store 

  4. Manager/operations  

You can make a case that Samsung or Apple might be appropriate for the manager but fall short for the other personas. In contrast, enterprise OEMs such as Zebra offer a broad range of solutions, i.e., an MC93XX Series mobile computer for warehouse/DC picking and put-away, an MC3XXX Series mobile computer for back of store inventory management, a TC5x mobile computer for front of store inventory and merchandising or point of sale (POS), and a TC2x handheld device and/or ET4x tablet for managers to coordinate and communicate with staff and supply chain partners/vendors. 

Though each Android device has a unique form and feature set, they all have a high degree of commonality, from operating system (OS) support to security patch updates, to EMM functionality, API extensions, user experience (UX), accessories and more.

 Therefore, the ability for enterprise vendors to address multiple mobile computing personas while maintaining a high degree of commonality and re-use is something that is unique to enterprise devices – and still does not fit into the consumer OEM business model 20+ years on.

Q: Can’t companies save on costs by leveraging employees’ personal devices under a bring your own device (BYOD) program?

When considering BYOD, at a minimum we recommend examining:

  1. Total cost of ownership (TCO)

  2. Security

  3. Employee satisfaction

  4. Customer satisfaction

A study performed by Oxford Economics reported, “When all the direct and indirect costs and benefits are considered, BYOD often doesn’t make as much financial sense as many business executives believe it does.” The same report states, “BYOD can reduce their business acumen, reduce data security and adversely affect revenue growth and employee turnover.”   

 There are numerous mobile device operating models, including:

  • BYOD (bring your own device)

Each has its respective tradeoffs. Zebra’s focus has been on COBO. These are corporate liable devices (CLD) devices which are procured by the employing organization and used exclusively for business purposes by employees. Recently, enterprise customers have been increasingly interested in Zebra devices for COPE deployments as well.   

Over the years, we’ve run across a number of customers considering BYOD. One of the challenges associated with BYOD is the diversity of devices to support. 

A major U.S. stationery retailer considering BYOD asked Zebra to assist in analyzing the necessary support. Its goal was to support 95% of the devices held by its associates. To accomplish this, it needed to support both Android and iOS operating systems. And to obtain 95% workforce coverage, it needed to support five different Android dessert releases with eight different application programming interfaces (APIs) and six different iOS releases. Of the Android devices, it would likely need to support at least four different hardware manufacturers. From a TCO perspective, supporting this hugely diverse environment increases the operational costs of developers, system test teams, and IT administrators. Narrowing the scope of BYOD-supported devices could have been an option but would have required significantly more employees to refresh their personal devices.  

Furthermore, our analysis also found that hundreds of millions of fielded devices are not on the latest security patch, creating a potential security vulnerability. As stated in the Defense Homeland Security Study on Mobile Security, “Many consumer devices are well beyond the security life cycle support offered by Google or iOS.” The same report states, “Best practices cannot be met with BYOD devices.” 
I know that other customers investigating BYOD over the years have said, “We’re not storing any sensitive material on the device, therefore we don’t have to worry about device security.”  This is false. I typically respond to this statement with, “Do you care if an attacker penetrates your corporate network and mounts an attack on your back-end servers?” Of course, they answer yes. In many instances, a compromised device can be used covertly as a gateway to access back-end corporate resources.  Thus, unbeknownst to the user, the attacker – via the device – has a conduit to the back end corporate resources. Such bot attacks (i.e., Zeus, Viking Horde, Dresscode and so on) can be readily mounted on an open BYOD device. 
In all instances when an employee uses a device for both personal and work purposes via COPE, BYOD or other similar deployments, it is highly recommended you proactively address privacy concerns. I recall one instance when an employee was asked what he thought about using a single device for personal and work purposes. He replied, “They used to know where I was eight hours a day. Now they know where I am 24 hours a day.” Whether reality or perception, all shared device programs should have strict policies and declarations on maintaining associate privacy. 
Finally, if you are seriously considering BYOD, you should also validate legal and labor organization policy requirements/compliance. In the U.S., the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) does have stated policies on the use of personal assets for work related operations.  
In summary: BYOD can reduce the CAPEX hardware acquisition cost. But it does so at the expense of OPEX, security, and in many instances productivity. Feel free to contact a Zebra representative for more information.  

Q: How does the consumer market influence enterprise offerings?

In 2015, we introduced the concept of “Confluence” here at Zebra. Originally intended as a play on words, it took on the traditional meaning of coming together. But it also meant “consumer influence.” Our tag line was “Consumer influence without consumer compromise.” To this day, “confluence” embodies our mobile device design strategy, the best of both consumer and enterprise worlds. For example, much like consumer devices, we have added PCAP/touch displays to our enterprise devices. But to meet the needs of the enterprise, we added modes for operating in the snow and rain. We also reduced our display bezels to be more like consumer devices, but we continued to maintain our drop and tumble specs in the process.  We introduced Android, a consumer OS, but supplemented the OS with Zebra Mobility DNA to make Android enterprise ready (while maintaining standards-based interoperability). We also introduced lighter weight, more pocketable devices.   
The key to making enterprise devices more like consumer devices (to appease the end user/front-line worker) – without compromising on their reliability, durability, or security advantages – is making the right tradeoffs. I often use an old Apple example as a “wrong tradeoff” for enterprise: The antennas in the iPhone 4 were such that if you held the device at certain points, you degraded your cellular connectivity (aka “phantom” effects).  It was reported that this was well known within Apple but that it is what enabled a thinner device, which was presumably a good decision for consumers, but not necessarily for enterprise users. And there are many other decisions that may be good for consumers but not necessarily enterprise users, such as higher resolution displays (which come at a higher cost, require more power, reduce processing performance, require larger app downloads, etc.) and high-rate display refreshes (i.e., 120Hz).

Q: We’ve all had that experience with our personal phones in which there are all kinds of pre-installed apps popping up from nowhere. Is this different with enterprise mobility solutions? 

Recently, a major U.S. federal government agency made a large procurement of Google Pixel smartphones. A key factor in the award was “clean Android.” Enterprise customers do not want superfluous clutter, often called “bloat.” Consumer smartphone bloat comes in various forms: 

  1. User interface (UI)/UX clutter (unwanted UI icons/links)

  2. Unnecessary pre-loaded applications (classically called “bloatware’) 

  3. Pre-installed certificates of “trusted entities (Some consumer devices have 200+ certificates.)  

The net impact of such clutter to device owners/users can be lower battery life, reduced security, less available storage, an inferior associate UX, and increased IT tickets. 

As an example, we recently inspected a consumer device from a major consumer OEM. We found well over 50 consumer-oriented bloatware apps, including recreational apps, kid mode apps, game launchers, doodle apps, weather apps, sports apps, and voice recognition apps (beyond standard Google apps).  All are just invitations to reduce productivity and generate an IT ticket and – if not designed under SSDLC (Secure Software Development Lifecycle) processes and meticulously vetted (i.e., penetration testing) – may introduce security vulnerabilities. 

So, to answer the question: All devices include some degree of bloatware. What you need to look at is the quantity of bloat and whether these superfluous installations target enterprise or consumer use cases.

Q: We’ve all seen or heard of markets for lost or stolen devices, has this come up with past enterprise customers?

This almost always comes up. A major U.S. west coast retailer who had deployed consumer devices (and has since moved to enterprise devices) reported attrition rates over 20% per year. This was by no means an isolated case, either, as we’ve had several customers report rates in excess of 20% per year. Make no mistake, enterprise devices are also lost or stolen – but at significantly lesser rates given the smaller resale market/value.  To further reduce these rates, Zebra offers supplemental methods to track and locate missing devices. These offerings operate indoors and go beyond the capabilities that customers might find in consumer-oriented services such as “Google Find My Device.” You can read about some of them here.

Q: Do consumer devices fail more frequently than enterprise devices?

Though numerous studies find that they do, the exact difference is highly multivariate and statistical. The best I can do is share some generalized data from third-party studies. 

The latest “Enterprise Mobility Total Cost of Ownership” study from VDC Research shows survival rates of a consumer device at the end of year four as 46.9% while rugged device survival rates are 78.4%. A UK study on the survival rates of consumer devices from different vendors (which did not cover enterprise rugged devices) showed survival rates at the end of year four are between 14% to 50% depending on the vendor.  
From a hardware perspective, Zebra has spent decades creating test methodologies and building devices  that meet stringent tumble and drop specifications. It should be noted that other OEMs’ claims about device durability based on MIL-STD-810G standards may vary widely because these standards are vague on what constitutes a failure or how many devices can be used in a test run. It is well beyond the scope of this post to go into details about what durability specs can and cannot confirm for you and how they are determined. But I highly recommend you engage with Zebra associates to get a deeper understanding of this topic. Like my colleagues say often, there’s a lot a spec sheet won’t tell you. There is also a lot of information on spec sheets that are lacking context.   

The Uncensored Truth

I recall a corporate technical conference at which the guest speaker was the CIO of a major home improvement company who had just done a large rollout of mobile devices. He walked to the podium and made an opening statement that no one in that room will ever forget:

“The one thing I learned about mobile computing, this sh*t is hard.”

He went on to share the sentiment of the other customer I mentioned who (at a different point in time) said, 

“Last time I picked a device. This time I’m picking a partner.”

My advice?

  • Do not underestimate the complexity and mission criticality of mobile computing.

  • Consider mobile computing as critical infrastructure. 

  • Think business continuity, consider TCO (both capex and opex), and perform a security risk assessment.

  • And most of all, do not drive your red Ferrari in the desert!


Related Reads:

Best Practices, Energy and Utilities, 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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