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Mobile Device Operating System Wars: Ver. 2.0

April 22, 2014  - By 6 Comments

It’s been two years since I wrote a column entitled Mobile Device Operating system wars: Android vs. iOS vs. Windows Mobile. After traveling and attending countless conferences and listening to a large number of mobile device users in the geospatial user community, I think it’s time to touch on this subject again, and what a crazy and confusing landscape it is. First of all, let’s frame the discussion in terms of the geospatial users, because that’s the soup we swim in.

At the end of the day, we are driven by the geospatial software we use, so this limits the type of mobile device we can select from. For example, Esri’s ArcPad runs on Windows Mobile and Windows desktop. If that’s the software you want to use, then you can’t use an Android device, an iPad, or a Windows Phone device. In another example, AutoCAD 360 for mobile, which I used a few weeks ago in the field, runs only on Android and iOS devices, not on Windows Mobile devices.


Chart Source: The Wall Street Journal, Gartner

While it appears Android is the dominant mobile operating system of the future, it depends on who you talk to. Right or wrong, some (maybe a lot of) enterprise organizations are scared of Android. They are scared because of one word: security, or more specifically, the perception of the lack of security. Android is open source, and it scares the heck out of enterprise IT (information technology) departments. It scares some to the point that they are shutting down projects that are proposing to deploy Android devices in the field. Is the fear justified? It’s probably more hyped up than it deserves, but IT folks are pretty conservative these days.

Where does that leave the enterprise organizations? iOS or Windows?

Some organizations are going with iOS, but the number of enterprise geospatial apps for iOS is very limited, and most of those that exist aren’t very powerful. They can’t even deal with datum transformations. That means the hardcore iOS enterprise users are left developing their own software, which some are doing. The other limitation of iOS is the hardware device selection. Since Apple doesn’t license iOS to anyone, you have the iPad and the iPhone and that’s about it. Not much selection.

That leaves us where we started…Microsoft Windows.

Dell Venue Tablet

Dell Venue Tablet

My gut tells me that Windows is making a comeback among geospatial users, even though Windows operating system market share is minuscule compared to Android and iOS on mobile devices. Part of the reason is a plethora of high-quality, Windows-based tablets and pads. Recently, I’ve had the chance to handle some Windows-based tablets such as Dell Venue tablet and Panasonic ToughPad. They are nice tablets for field use. Thank Apple for driving manufacturers to produce good quality tablets at a reasonable price. The other part of the reason, and the major driver, is security. IT departments simply trust the security features that Microsoft provides more than iOS and Android. In the age of security breaches such as the recent Heartbleed bug, the emphasis on computer security is at an all-time high.

Panasonic ToughPad

Panasonic ToughPad

Security may be the catalyst that pushes Windows back into the forefront of operating systems for the enterprise geospatial user. That’s good news for geospatial software developers. Pressure has been mounting for geospatial software manufacturers to introduce Android- and iOS-compatible versions of their software. Now, with the security issue at the forefront and the availability of high-quality Windows-based tablets at reasonable prices, developers may have some breathing space.

But wait: Which version of Windows?

Windows Mobile? Windows Phone? Windows Embedded Handheld? Windows Desktop? Windows RT?

They aren’t all the same, and they all don’t run the same software. For example, software built for Windows Mobile won’t run on Windows Phone or Windows Desktop.

Microsoft’s mobile operating system strategy has been confusing at best. In past years, it’s been clear that mobile devices run Windows Mobile. It’s not so clear any longer. Microsoft discontinued mainstream support for Windows Mobile 6.1 and 6.5 in January 2013. It’s not as bad as it sounds because in the three years I’ve owned a Win Mobile 6.5 Pro device, an update was never issued. But what it does say is that Microsoft is done with it. No new devices will be designed with Windows Mobile 6.5. However, that’s not to say that Windows Mobile devices are going away. Microsoft just renamed it to Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5, which Microsoft says it will provide extended support for until January 2020. So, all is well, just a different name.

Microsoft’s mobile strategy has turned off manufacturers, and it shows. Given that Microsoft has stopped supporting new devices running Windows Mobile since January 2013, how many devices have you seen introduced since then that support Windows Embedded Handheld? The answer is, not that many, and the ones that do support it are handhelds selling at a premium price, upwards of $1,500 or more. That’s tough to justify when you can buy a tablet or pad for equal or less. And…..the tablets and pads are running full Windows, not the mobile, handheld or phone version so they’re able to run a greater number of off-the-shelf software programs.

Given the above, I feel the tide is turning, at least for the geospatial user community. Windows is going to make a comeback and be the go-to operating system for mobile devices, at least for tablet and pad devices. Don’t misunderstand me though: Android and iOS will still dominate the market share numbers by far, but that’s the consumer user community, not the enterprise geospatial user community. Windows Mobile devices will still have a niche place in the geospatial user community, but I have to wonder if software makers will continue to support that environment if the sales aren’t significant enough.

Sidebar: For those of you who feel I’ve errantly left out the discussion about ruggedized devices vs. non-ruggedized or semi-rugged consumer devices, I’ll say this. Whenever I’ve encountered an enterprise that has deployed consumer mobile devices in an industrial environment (such as iPad), it invariably answers the question about device reliability with “We’ve had very few problems.” The reality seems to be that enterprise users are taking special care of these devices in the field. Program managers are saying, “Even if each person breaks one per year, it’s still half the price of industrial devices.” The reality is that small percentages are failing.

However, one can’t ignore the outdoor usability issue. The displays on some consumer devices don’t handle sunlight very well, and if the display isn’t sunlight readable, the device is severely limited in the field. The same can be said for wide temperature ranges. Both extreme heat and extreme cold can torture a mobile device that isn’t built to withstand that environment. Test before you deploy. Heat it up in your oven, cool it down in your freezer, and see how it behaves.

There’s certainly a niche market for ruggedized mobile devices, but the significant price difference between those devices and consumer devices are making enterprise organizations think twice about where to spend their money. Lastly, many consumer devices are trending towards semi-rugged as manufacturers are discovering this is one way to differentiate them from the ultra-price-competitive mobile device market.

Thanks, and see you next time.

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Eric Gakstatter

About the Author:

Eric Gakstatter has been involved in the GPS/GNSS industry for more than 20 years. For 10 years, he held several product management positions in the GPS/GNSS industry, managing the development of several medium- and high-precision GNSS products along with associated data-collection and post-processing software. Since 2000, he's been a power user of GPS/GNSS technology as well as a consultant with capital management companies; federal, state and local government agencies; and private companies on the application and/or development of GPS technology. Since 2006, he's been a contributing editor to GPS World magazine and the Geospatial Solutions website. He is the editor of Geospatial Solutions Monthly, a weekly newsletter focused on geospatial technologies. Follow Eric on Twitter at @GPSGIS_Eric.

6 Comments on "Mobile Device Operating System Wars: Ver. 2.0"

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  1. Chris says:

    Thanks for affirming my decision to buy a Toughpad with Windows 8 last year. I run Arcpad on it. I Bluetooth the gps data from an old Trimble Geo 2005 series that would no longer run ArcPad. Great performance. The downside is carrying two devices

  2. brian M says:

    Apple have done a great job in fooling a lot of people about the security of their eco system, unfortunately its just as vulnerable as other systems – in away more so as people mistakenly believe the propaganda. You only have to monitor the security web sites to see the problems with IOS systems and the patches now appearing from Apple at rather frequent intervals (at last!).

    Security is a risk on whatever system is used and I suspect Windows 8.x will become the easy enterprise choice, both for security (familiarity), features (easier to develop applications for the familiar Windows) and updatability of the product (try getting vital updates quickly published on Apple!).

    Oh and you avoid the 30% Apple tax – so cheaper too!

  3. Tom T says:

    As a CIO I completely agree with your comments that organizations will shy away from android devices. We have standardized on Windows mobile devices but allow iOS devices if there is a business need. We do not allow Andriod mobile devices at all.

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