Rugged Android or Windows Mobile?

Android or Windows Mobile/CE? 
An executive overview
May 2012

Also see my Rugged Android device List

This executive overview is aimed at management who need to decide whether to choose Android or Windows Mobile/CE rugged devices. It covers the main areas that should be considered and provides some action points.

Continuation of Windows Mobile/CE

With the introduction of Windows Phone 7, Microsoft signalled an emphasis on the consumer rather than enterprise. Many of the features required of rugged development such as true background apps, device management and native coding are absent. The later Windows Phone Mango release solved none of these problems. Furthermore, apps can only be distributed via the Windows Marketplace and must be certified by Microsoft which makes them less suitable for enterprise distribution. Hence, there are no rugged devices using Windows Phone 7.

Microsoft continues to support the older Windows Mobile 6.x and it’s underlying operating system, Windows CE and  vendors are continuing to produce rugged mobile devices. There has been no official announcement from Microsoft as to when Windows Mobile/CE will be retired. Even when it is retired, hardware OEMs might continue to offer  support as they have a large existing client base using old devices. 

ACTION: Enquire of your possible hardware suppliers as to how long they will support Windows Mobile/CE and compare this to the expected lifetime of your rugged solution. If your possible hardware suppliers are unable to provide support timelines then you need to factor this into your risk assessment. 

Variety of Device 

Windows Mobile/CE offers the greatest number of models with a similar form factor : a handheld (vertical) form factor and a resistive screen. If this is your required form factor and screen type then you have a large choice for your initial device and a large number of fallbacks if you need to change your chosen supplier. Android has a greater variety of device types (handheld, tablet, consumer semi-rugged, capacitive and resistive) and is more suitable if you wish to start with multiple device types or ever expand on the supported form factors. 

ACTION: Determine the type (handheld, tablet, consumer semi-rugged, capacitive and resistive) of device you require now and into the future and work out which platform offers devices of best fit.

Price of Devices

Prices are similar for Android or Windows Mobile/CE devices that have similar specification. Moreover, some manufacturers offer exactly the same hardware that can be configured with either operating system. However, the greater variety of Android device types (see above) means that there are cheaper devices available. There are already some very inexpensive IP67 Android-only devices available from lesser well-known hardware manufacturers with the attendant risks of possibly poor reliability and poor or non-existent support. The prices of Android-only devices is only going to go downwards. Windows Mobile devices prices are likely to remain static and there’s a medium risk of increase in price in the longer term as they become more specialist and/or no longer benefit from the gains of mass production. In the past, some rugged Windows Mobile devices used in solutions were obtained, subsidised, from network operators. These network operators are discontinuing providing Windows Mobile devices and only provide Android replacements. 

ACTION: Decide if cost of device is an important factor. If so, consider cheaper Android devices but pre-assess device reliability and hardware provider support. If you are obtaining your devices subsidised from a network operator then you will have to use Android. 

Technical Capability

Probably the most important factor is whether either platform can support what you need to do. This might relate to facilities provided within the hardware, external connectors and interfaces or functions provided by the built-in software. 

ACTION: Embark on a feasibility study stage before committing to specific hardware or an operating system.

Availability of Developers

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find Windows Mobile/CE developers. Most developers have moved onto newer platforms. If you are developing in-house, your workers won’t thank you for having to work on a legacy platform. Android developers are ubiquitous and are keen to work on Android. Developer rates are about the same for both platforms. 

ACTION: Determine the availability of developers for your project and their keenness to do the work. 

Development Risk 

Windows Mobile is a proven platform for rugged solutions. If there’s a software problem, it has almost certainly been solved by someone somewhere. This makes Windows Mobile development predictable and low risk. Android is newer and there are still aspects of Android rugged solutions that are on the ‘bleeding edge’. On both platforms, if you are one of the first to solve a particular problem then development timescales and cost could be protracted. Hence, Android rugged development is slightly less predictable and slightly more risky. The size of this risk depends on the complexity of your project. 

ACTION: As part of a feasibility study, work out what parts of your project are breaking new ground. Solve these problems before committing to specific hardware or an operating system. 

Summary 

There’s no one immediate answer as to whether Windows Mobile or Android is better for your project. While this paper uncovers the issues, each issue needs to be considered against your particular project. Some issues might be non-issues while others might be show stoppers. Contact me if you need consultancy to help you make a better-informed choice.