The fact that one of my largest corporate customers made the decision to standardise on a consumer phablet for its field-based engineers instead of a traditional rugged smartphone heralds a very significant development. After much deliberation, they have adopted the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, a phablet with its own stylus, instead of migrating to a more up-to-date, rugged device. It would appear that smartphones are finally gaining ground over rugged devices in enterprise environments.

The BYOD movement has heavily debated the benefits of using consumer devices in the workplace and out in the field, with an equal number of arguments proposed in favour of rugged devices, because they are more fit for purpose. From my own experience, this is true.

In spite of this, in the end, cost and aesthetics are winning because enterprise customers know they can get a foot on the mobility ladder by buying a cheaper consumer device – even if they have to replace it more frequently. In addition, their workforces feel they are being rewarded with a fashionable, sleek looking gadget, which is always a positive too. Ironically, the reality is that many of these devices will be restricted to only allow certain apps and functionality, but users won’t be aware of that at the outset.

Reflecting on the way hardware manufacturers have reacted to the threat of the smartphone, it’s not surprising they are starting to lose the battle. Of all the major industrial hardware manufacturers, only one currently offers a viable Android option and the majority have remained on Windows Mobile.

Yet Microsoft has been painfully slow to react, with manufacturers declaring there will be no more R&D focusing on developing new Windows Mobile devices. This probably won’t be an issue for larger enterprises who may be slower to replace their hardware estates and many will stay with Windows as it’s what they already know.

But the innovators are moving to Android, as our experience with customers is starting to show. They want a rugged device that looks like a smartphone and they are willing to trial Android because it is perceived as being more ‘open’. In addition, the ROI and TCO argument that manufacturers have always relied upon is no longer valid.

Customers are telling me they don’t care whether they have a rugged device or not because the cost of purchasing the devices is now so much lower anyway. They like the fact that they can buy devices for a quarter of the price and just buy four of them. Devices have become disposable, people are using Android and applications have moved into the cloud. In the event of a hardware problem, a new device can very quickly be commissioned using a mobile device management platform. The downtime whether you are using a rugged or consumer device is the same.

One drawback of using a smartphone as opposed to a rugged device is the level of warranty available. It is difficult to get commercial grade warranties on an estate of consumer devices being used in an industrial setting, which compares to the level of cover offered by manufacturers – Motorola’s gold warranty for example.

Attitudes towards cover are also changing and because of the low entry point and replacement costs, companies no longer place such importance on being covered for absolutely every eventuality. If a company does adopt smartphones, the volume of buffer stock required is likely to be much higher. Whereas most organisations would normally carry a 5% buffer stock to cover for breakages and maintenance, that figure needs to be more like 15% with consumer devices – because things will be more likely to go wrong more often.

Having been involved with the transport and field service industries for many years, my own view is that the general look of smartphones doesn’t seem to suit an industrial setting. They tend to look out of their depth compared with rugged devices. Perhaps the new phablets, like the Galaxy Note, will fill this gap. What they do offer as a plus is a huge screen space and far more scope to introduce personalised messages and branding.

In one year from now, I would guess many more companies will have followed the lead of our customer and migrated to smartphones and consumer devices. Cost of ownership is lower overall and workers are happy because they have a nice sleek device. And this will be the first step towards a whole host of other consumer devices – smart glasses and watches are obvious contenders – becoming mainstream in a business setting.