Today’s mobile computing world is a bit like the open road, or the Wild West, akin to what we experienced in the early 80s with the personal computer. You may only remember Apple or IBM: I’m not counting Commodore. There were, however, several serious business computers that didn’t survive. And the software applications were plain vanilla: desktop publishing and spreadsheets.
Why do I bring this up? To explain why it is so difficult for contractors to come up with a decent mobile device strategy.
Business pressure is mounting, however, to go mobile to stay competitive. Contractors will need to choose a device and applications; and deal with employee buy in, device security and the decision to join or not to join the “cloud.”
Choosing a device
Employees will no longer tolerate carrying multiple devices, and they want to choose their device. The good news is that the IT folks recognize this and have begun to create “apps” that can be used with the three big platforms: Apple, Microsoft and Android. Cross-platform development, however, is still in its infancy. So if you want to let employees BYOD (bring your own device), it will limit the choice of apps you will be able to deploy at this time.
To keep this discussion brief, let’s just say you pick a device for everyone to use. Each platform has its own merits.
The positive for iOS (Apple) devices is ease of use. Anyone can learn it quickly and many people are excited to get an iPhone. They also have decent security and you can even lock out options. There are also a lot of apps to choose from. The cons are glare and lack of a native keyboard. Don’t underestimate the importance of a keyboard for some users.
Windows has the advantage that most people are already familiar with: the Microsoft operating system. It also has good security and the ability to lock options. Windows is also deployed on some models that still have native keyboards. On the con side I have heard some developers gripe about lack of support between its different versions. The jury is still out the latest version, Windows 8. So, we’ll see if Windows has the ability to take market share from iOS and Android.
On the plus side Android appears to have the biggest market share and is driven by Google. They also have devices available with native keyboards. At a recent IT conference, however, I did hear some concern with security from “Top Geek” types who like Android because of the extreme ability to customize the device. However, their concerns may not be your concerns.
Employee buy in
So you’ve chosen. Now how do you get employee buy in? Some companies hand out the devices and let employees experiment and see what they do with them. I like this idea. You are solving two problems this way. You are cementing employee buy in and you are also likely to get a better idea about which apps work best for your company. Something else happens when you ask select employees to participate: they become champions for the cause, providing much-needed support to help fully implement mobile throughout your organization.
No matter what device you choose, successful implementation will include a balance of good apps and great training. Resources include trade shows, contractor associations, current IT staff or vendors, and trade magazines.
You should also consider user security. Because smartphones have evolved so quickly, we still think of them as just phones. But they have a lot of personal info (think identity theft) and many have a lot of corporate info on them as well. For this reason you must require a lock code on all mobile devices! It makes them a little less convenient, but I believe this is a necessity. And if a phone has corporate access of any kind, your system administrator should have the ability to wipe or erase the entire device remotely if it is lost or stolen.
And finally, we come to the cloud. There are a lot of people telling us what the cloud is. The truth is that it continues to evolve. The cloud can be a complete offsite IT system that you “rent” or it can be a server in your back room that stores data from your mobile devices. Perhaps it’s merely a back-up strategy. If you are still intimidated by the cloud, I suggest the cloud that you operate in be your own server room. Of course you will need a good IT department/consultant for any of these options. If you are too small for your own staff, look to your contractor trade association for help.
There is plenty of competitive opportunity traveling this wide open road, so you need to keep moving. The mobile strategy for our industry may still be in flux, but you should find your path now before it is too late.
Dan Bulley, senior vice president, Mechanical Contractors Association Chicago, is an expert on safety, green building and construction technologies, such as BIM and mobile apps. A mechanical engineer, he has the distinction of being a LEED Accredited Professional in both green building design and construction as well as operations & maintenance. Bulley serves as a resource to MCA Chicago member contractor companies on technical and code matters. As a former officer and board member for the Illinois Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council and former president of Illinois ASHRAE, he continues to work with those and other related organizations.