The postal-courier industry, in the midst of market changes, will need to grapple with a significant technological challenge looming on the horizon. The delivery of goods is an expensive proposition that requires significant capital investments and a large supply of labor. Technology, in the form of handheld devices and delivery software, works to create an efficient process that enables companies to minimize costs and maximize revenues. The handhelds used by delivery personnel include a number of important capabilities—bar code scanning, messaging, GPS—that help facilitate workflows. From enabling track and trace to obtaining proof of delivery, the current use-cases for these devices are plentiful. As the expectations of consumers grow and their desire for greater personalization increases; postal-courier organizations will need to heavily rely on these devices to transfer real-time data between all parties involved in a transaction. Moreover, postal-courier organizations attempting to expand their service offerings to offset declining mail volumes and differentiate themselves from the competition will employ handheld devices and new applications to complete additional business processes. To this end, upgrading to a new, more modern operating system helps organizations expand into auxiliary, customer-facing services.
Today’s Operating System
While several postal-courier organizations have chosen smartphones as their delivery device, the vast majority have opted for ruggedized enterprise mobile computers. Over 80% of these devices run on legacy Windows Embedded CE and Windows Mobile 6.x platforms. These legacy systems are particularly well-suited for enterprise devices and applications due to their customizable nature and strong ecosystems of solution providers developing applications. Moreover, comprehensive lifecycle support from Microsoft and OEM partners provides further value-add for these platforms. However, Microsoft ended meaningful support for Windows Mobile 6.x in January 2015, and support for Embedded CE will end shortly; with Microsoft only providing security patches for the platforms through 2020. As a result, over the course of the next few years, postal courier organizations will need to transition to a new operating system.
In theory, the logical next step would be to transition to the most recent iteration of Windows without needing to implement any serious changes. However, the situation is far more complicated than that; leaving many organizations debating their next steps.
The Path Forward
With the deadline of 2020 fast approaching, companies must begin evaluating their options regarding hardware, operating system, and software. In choosing an OS for next generation enterprise handheld devices, the decision comes down largely to the consumer heavyweight, Android, or the enterprise incumbent, Microsoft. However, with Microsoft having failed to deliver a desirable operating since the release of Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 in 2011; some in the industry have moved to the Android operating system with its modern features and capabilities.
Android does not represent a perfect solution. Designed for the consumer space, the operating system lacks many of the security and management features of Windows as well as the substantial base of enterprise developers and OEMs supporting it. Nonetheless, Android’s enterprise user-base has grown steadily over the past few years, coinciding with improvements in the OS’s enterprise functionality. All leading rugged OEMs now offer an Android option, and several view this operating system as the way forward for the industry. Moreover, many ISVs that previously supported legacy Windows systems have shifted their R&D focus to Android (and iOS). This growing portfolio of Android devices and enterprise applications serves as justification for many to switch to this OS in light of Microsoft offering no suitable alternative.
Microsoft’s hopes to regain its market share, or at the very least stop the flow of users away from Windows, lie with its new OS for enterprise handheld devices—Windows 10 IoT Core. Postal-courier organizations, specifically those in the United States, have a pent up demand for a Windows solution, albeit having been burned by Microsoft in the past. Failing to deliver a Windows 7 solution and releasing an unsuitable solution in Windows 8; confidence among those in the space is waning. Windows 10, with its cross-device functionality and enterprise features could meet this demand. However, the release continues to be delayed, incentivizing those in need of a more immediate upgrade to switch to Android. Continued delays, or the release of an incomplete product, would further spur Android adoption, essentially sealing Microsoft’s fate in the rugged enterprise space.
What about the Apps?
Devices and operating systems play an important role in the completion of business processes, but applications/software are the last piece of the puzzle. Most organizations either develop their applications internally or outsource the process, but either way, the finished applications provide the key to performing tasks in the field. Unfortunately, postal-courier organizations planning an OS transition will also need an application-transition plan. For regardless of OS choice, organizations will need to recode old applications or develop new ones.
Windows 8 and 10 are not backwards compatible with legacy Windows systems, and a move to Android or iOS will similarly require recoding. This process, in most cases, will be expensive and cumbersome. If the company has the technological resources, they may complete the project in-house; however, most organizations will likely need to outsource at least some of the project. There are a number of tools on the market, such as Xamarin or iFactr, which enable cross platform development, and essentially provide organizations with a bridge to their next OS. Microsoft is also providing hooks from Visual Studio (VS) to the Xamarin platform making it easier to leverage existing .NET and C# skillsets to support development on Android or iOS. Moreover, we expect many in the industry to use this period as an opportunity to modernize applications that have been in service for decades.
The Bottom Line
Handheld devices play an instrumental role in the postal courier market now and moving forward. The next few years mark a period of mass transition of the likes never seen in the postal courier industry, and the lack of leadership by Microsoft creates an environment of uncertainty. However, this period also marks a moment of opportunity for organizations to modernize their systems and applications. The path taken today will largely dictate the quality of enterprise mobility capabilities tomorrow.
Written by Matthew Hopkins and David Krebs. For more information, be sure to review our forthcoming full postal-courier report, set to be released this month (November), or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The author can be contacted directly at email@example.com.