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Mobile Workforce Consumerization: Laptops, Tablets, and Phones, Oh My!

Michael Kelly
Jul 12, 2018

Mobile workforce management is in a state of significant transformation. Along with enhancements to mobile workforce applications (software), there has been a notable shift in the types of devices (hardware) being used by workers in the field. Increasingly, utilities are tossing aside traditional laptops and two-way radios in lieu of consumer-grade devices like tablets and smartphones, fundamentally changing the landscape of workforce management.

Traditional Mobile Work Devices Have Limitations

Utilities in developed regions have historically deployed several types of mobile devices to the field force: ruggedized laptops that are often mounted on trucks, specialized handhelds used for specific tasks such as meter reading, and radios for voice communications and for activities such as deploying crews.

At the lower end of the technology spectrum, two-way radios from companies like Motorola and Harris have traditionally been the primary means of field force communications. While these devices are still in use today, they are largely limited to rural areas. In emerging markets, the use of two-way radios is a mixed bag; some may pursue these simple devices given the low price point, though strong cellular coverage in others (e.g., China) will enable select markets to leapfrog these rudimentary technologies and invest directly in tablets and specialized handhelds and smartphones.

Tablets and Smartphones Are Rising in Popularity for Mobile Workers

When moving up the chain to computing devices, utilities have traditionally employed expensive ruggedized laptops mounted in trucks. This is also changing as the complexity of device choices for utilities has increased dramatically in recent years. The proliferation of consumer-grade devices like tablets and smartphones entering the utility space is enabling new levels of flexibility for field force workers and the utility at large.

According to Navigant Research, these consumer-grade devices (tablets, smartphones) are expected to account for the majority of new device shipments, though there will still be a healthy market for new and upgraded laptops. Field workers still want the option to perform work on a laptop while in the truck while having the flexibility to jump onto a phone or tablet when at the door or performing field inspections.

The Sun Is Setting on Mobile Work Laptops

Looking forward, emerging capabilities like cognitive voice to text will further decrease the need for typing, incentivizing tablet and phone procurement over traditional laptops. Furthermore, technologies like augmented reality and wearables (think Google Glass) have the potential to continue driving this evolving space.

Navigant Research’s upcoming report, Utility Mobile Workforce Management Technologies, focuses on the drivers, barriers, and global trends of this technology.