Smart phones and tablet computers enable on-the-go access to information and key applications, especially considering 98 percent of Americans have an available 3G network (and 4G increasingly in certain markets). But what good is this technology to electrical contractors, their customers and the electricians in the field?

“Innovations in hardware design and increased processing power in mobile devices are enabling contractors to take advantage of these wireless network speeds to optimize employee productivity and stay connected with employees in the field with features such as corporate email and calendar access,” said Sheldon Hebert, senior director, enterprise, Motorola Mobility, Schaumburg, Ill.

According to market research firm Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn., global smart phone unit sales will reach 468 million by the end of 2011, a 59 percent increase from the previous year. Gartner also figures that sales of devices based on operating systems (OS)—e.g., Research in Motion Inc.’s Blackberry OS, Apple Computer Inc.’s iOS, Google’s Android, Microsoft’s Windows Phone—will account for more than a quarter of all mobile handset sales in 2011 and will exceed 1 billion units by 2015, or 47 percent of the total market.

In March, Forester Research, Cambridge, Mass., revised its U.S. consumer forecast for tablet PCs, predicting sales to more than double in 2011 to 24.1 million units from 10.3 million in 2010 and to reach 44 million by 2015. The company revised its projections based on the assumption that users will upgrade to new models more rapidly than they would for a more utilitarian, less mobile device, such as a desktop PC.

Apple’s App store and Google’s Android Marketplace were introduced in 2008. Only three years later, there are millions of apps available from more than 25 unique marketplace stores.
In addition, technology such as near field communication, which enables simplified transactions, data exchange and connections with just a touch, allows personnel to use their smart phones to make payments for supplies in the field.

“The technology may even allow customers to use their smart phones to pay the contractor and speed up that process,” said Tim Wagner, vice president and general manager, Samsung Mobile, Dallas.

As an adjunct to smart phones, headset devices represent the last few inches between the communications infrastructure and the person, making them a critical element of communication, according to Russell Castronovo, director, global communications for Plantronics Inc., Santa Cruz, Calif.

“Smart headsets can integrate the various communication methods, such as smart phone, computer and tablet, enabling contractors to more effectively communicate and remain hands-free,” he said.

Although still also a relatively new offering, tablets are estimated to surpass laptop sales by as early as 2015, according to MobileMarketingWatch.com. By then, there will be more than 15 billion networked devices worldwide, or almost two wireless devices per person.

“Tablets already have a wide range of capabilities and options. They are similar to laptops or smart phones, provide access to the Internet and even the contractor’s business system, and are already manufactured to take advantage of 4G network speeds,” said Amy Storey, assistant vice president at CTIA—The Wireless Association, Washington, D.C. In addition, manufacturers are using technology such as organic light--emitting diodes in screens for improved readability and designing different models based on end-users’ needs.

“For example, electricians in the field would probably rather have a smaller model tablet that leaves one hand free,” Wagner said.

Both smart phones and tablets offer contractors and field staff the ability to wirelessly communicate with key contacts in multiple ways; search the Internet for equipment, supplies and information quickly and efficiently; use GPS navigation to travel to customer locations and supplier sites; facilitate tracking the hours worked, parts used and knowledge transfer throughout the organization; and use apps that, for example, keep track of the latest electrical and fire code information and enable camera and video conferencing features.

Staying ahead of the curve
Driven by employee demand, more personal devices are migrating into the office and field. Employees want to use their personal smart phones and tablets to work on the go, and employers need assurance that devices will keep staff productive and keep the company’s intellectual property safe.

“The expectation of increased organizational efficiency is at an all-time high, but the days of one-size-fits-all mobility solutions are over,” Hebert said.

To stay ahead of the technology curve, contractors need to examine their individual business and decide what is most sensible, what kind of investment they are willing to make, and what levels of mobility they need to satisfy their communication needs.

“Because there are so many options in terms of devices, services and apps, contractors can create a customized wireless communication plan that works well for them,” Storey said.

Those who buy a product at the middle or end of its technological life cycle, when the price comes down, need to ensure that the OEM is a brand name that will continue to support that generation of technology, Wagner said.

“A reliable source will be willing to work with the contractor and its customers, regardless of the number of devices purchased,” he said.

Other challenges to keeping up with wireless communications options, according to Research In Motion Ltd., Waterloo, Ontario, are software development, cost, multiple operating systems, manageability and security. For example, McAfee, a division of Intel, conducted a poll and found, of 1,400 technology professionals in 14 nations, 21 percent of companies have no restrictions on the use of personal mobile devices, 58 percent have some policies, and only 20 percent have strict guidelines. The most obvious risk is employee-owned smart phones and tablets with work-related materials that turn up missing. Some 40 percent of organizations that responded to McAfee’s survey reported mobile devices lost or stolen, often involving the loss of critical business data.

The future
If the past is any indication, the future possibilities in wireless communication are endless.

“We’re going to see continued advancements in faster speeds and more sophisticated devices with more intelligence, all of which is dependent on access to increasing amounts of radio frequency spectrum availability,” Storey said.

With people becoming accustomed to immediate access to personal and work-related data from anywhere in the world, what was once considered “cool” is now a requirement, Wagner said.

“Access to real-time data will become even more critical, whether it comes from a smart phone, tablet or something yet to be released,” he said.

Since 2008, Wi-Fi integration into cell and smart phones has experienced explosive growth and, by 2010, had achieved a 92 percent adoption rate, according to an article written by Scott Thompson, president of Oberon Inc., State College, Pa. And with the distinction between cell phones and smart phones with Wi-Fi rapidly disappearing, there is an increasing expectation that all wireless phones will support Wi-Fi in the same way they are expected to contain embedded Bluetooth capabilities.

Integration between headsets and the contractor’s wireless communications infrastructure also will continue to tighten, according to Castronovo, including capabilities such as autodialing the codes for a conference call, rerouting calls when the phone is engaged, or even reading and interpreting text and email messages.

Finally, today’s tablets are advertised to have the processing power and capabilities of any laptop computer, and even at $600, prices are fairly comparable. As with other popular technologies, the price will quickly drop as soon as consumers decide whether, and if, tablets really are the perfect middle ground between a smart phone and a computer.


BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 and darbremer@comcast.net.