“That small screen size is what kills you,” says Jason Prater, director of development for Plex Systems Inc. (plex.com). Prater is talking about the screens on smartphones in particular, and mobile devices in general. Plex, like so many other enterprise software suppliers, is focusing on the spate of new mobile devices. To paraphrase a well-worn slogan, Plex wants to “reach out and touch” its software users— people on the move, wherever they are, in real time, regardless of mobile device. Making relevant and current information instantly accessible leads to faster and better decisions, especially time-critical decisions.
Plex has been building mobile apps for the entire life of its very large, very complete Plex Online enterprise resource planning system. Those apps have been mostly for factory floor users and for monitoring things such as machine tools, inventory movements, and shipments. Basic, straightforward, easy-to-use stuff. Till now, the mobile devices have been mostly industrial tablets and handhelds. Each one is a capital expense. “We were always terrified of the forklift driver running over a $5,000 scanner,” says Prater, remembering when he worked in a factory.
Smartphones and tablets are different. They do more. They’re lighter. They’re inexpensive. They provide more functionality at less cost. They’re readily available (online, telephone stores, consumer-electronics box stores, even Wal-Mart). And they are no longer just a status symbol for upper management executives. People from the “top floor” to the factory floor have and are using these devices.
Plex has been experimenting, rebuilding a couple of applications for the latest mobile devices. These applications include a corporate directory, contact management, and a support manage-ment system that Plex uses to handle requests, bug reports, and so on. The corporate directory was easy; it’s a pretty simple application that makes great use of the smartphone’s integrated dialer. The support management system was another matter. It had 150 fields or so. That’s way too many to be readable in a display the size of one’s palm. Plex had to strip out a lot of fields for the displays to be readable—“boiling it down to the core data that a user needs,” says Prater. Now that the “proof of concept” is done, Plex is tackling other applications. It will soon roll out a mobile workflow approval app. “We treat the iPad as a small PC or a small Mac. You will be able to get the whole Plex Online via the iPad,” continues Prater. Turns out, Plex deployed the first beta of Plex Online on the iPad early this year.
David Taylor confirms this problem of readability in various mobile devices. He’s the senior director of portfolio solutions marketing for Siemens PLM Software (plm.automation.siemens.com/en_us/), makers of the Teamcenter product lifecycle management (PLM) system. “You can’t just throw something up there in 2-pt font and expect people to read it. It’s got to be treated differently because the form factors are different.” Users will pinch, swipe, drag, and drop just so much before eye-squinting and fat-fingering through layers of data becomes too tiresome and not worth the effort. Tablets, being larger, can have more readable displays. In April, Siemens PLM announced Teamcenter Mobility, also for the iPad. This app lets people access, search, and view product data, 3D product models, and workflows in Teamcenter wherever their mobile device has WiFi or broadband Internet access. The Teamcenter Mobility app is available from the Apple App Store through iTunes. “It’s so easy to pop these [apps] in, and be up and running with them very, very quickly,” says Taylor. It’s a “piece of cake.”
Teamcenter Mobility comes in two versions. The free version offers some basic query capabilities. The paid ver-sion gives users full workflow and JT viewing. The apps’ user interface follows the Apple guidelines for the iPad, which makes the screens and displays different than those in Teamcenter. For now, data creation in Teamcenter Mobility is limited to workflow signoffs. Other data, such as markup, are being considered for future apps.
Which brings up a point that Prater makes: “these little phones are not content-creation devices. It’s very hard to put data in because they’re so small. You’re only going to consume data. This issue gets bigger as we go to more and more sophisticated applications.” Plex keeps mobile-based data-entry interactions to Plex Online small. Tweets are a good measure: 140 characters. “That’s about the limit of what we try to get people to enter as data,” he says.
Another consideration in the mobile world is the reliability of data communications, especially from mobile device to online enterprise applications. Wireless communications works great, when it works. Manufacturers and their employees dispersed throughout the country don’t all get great 3G coverage. Connectivity, says Prater, is a “huuge” problem. “4G speed is nothing short of amazing. Over the next few years, it will really enhance the mobile experience. Right now, though, the speed is touchy depending on where you are. Go to Timbuktu, it’s horrible.”
This problem can be mitigated using “off-line mode.” Users gather all the information they need while they’re connected to a network, then do their work while disconnected, and then synch everything back up when network connectivity resumes. Another mitigating factor, points out Taylor, is the fact that the information being slung about “may be time-critical, but it’s not real-time, production-type information. If you lose the signal, you’re not going to shut down a production line.”
So what happens to desktop PCs? Taylor has colleagues who have moved nearly 80% of their non-PLM work to tablets. “They’re not running our apps, not running NX [Siemens’ computer-aided design, CAD, system], but their day-to-day stuff.” He doesn’t see mobile devices replacing desktop devices. “But they can certainly augment it, and allow you to do things when you’re away from your desk that you could never do before.”
Prater also thinks desktop PCs “still have a place,” that mobile devices will never replace them entirely. For content creation—CAD design, writing, programming, and the like—users will need a full keyboard and PC. However, he says, most people are “content consumers.” Apple CEO Steve Jobs said essentially the same thing at a conference last year. “When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that’s what you needed on the farms.” Cars became popular as the population moved into cities. “PCs are going to be like trucks,” Jobs continued. “They are still going to be around; [however, only] one out of x people will need them.”