5 Things to Consider When Choosing Hardware for Dedicated Devices
“Software is eating the world.” You’ve heard it, you’ve seen it, maybe you’ve even been a part of building that software. As different categories of software get increasingly more crowded and competitive, innovators are looking for creative new ways to deliver their software to end-users. One trend that’s been gaining increasingly more traction is including hardware as part of your software product in the form of a mobile device dedicated to a single application or use case. There’s a huge opportunity to capitalize on this dedicated device space, but oftentimes software developers aren’t sure where to start when evaluating hardware options for their product.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be posting a series of blog posts covering everything you need to know about building a dedicated device, including the considerations when it comes to hardware, operating system, device management, and operations.
In this blog post, we’ll kick things off with the top considerations that you and your team should explore when choosing a dedicated device to support your innovative software solutions. The main topics you can expect to be covered are Hardware Sourcing, Cost Factors, End-of-Life, Connectivity, and Customization. Further, we will break down the benefits and issues for each type of hardware sourcing option within each of these considerations.
Use this blog post to help guide you and your team when choosing your hardware to ensure you’re building the best full-stack product and creating a great user experience for your app!
🌐 Hardware Sourcing
Consideration #1: Hardware Sourcing
What are the current hardware supplier options available in the smart hardware market?
So you’ve identified a problem and developed an idea for an innovative solution that can be solved with an integrated software and hardware product. But where do you start when it comes to evaluating and picking your hardware? Picking the right hardware to deliver your software is critical, and can have huge downstream impacts on your software, user experience, and operations.
Currently, there are three main categories of hardware options to consider when sourcing your fleet of dedicated mobile devices. Understanding what each option entails will help guide you and your team towards making the best decision to suit your needs. The remaining considerations below will also evaluate the advantages and challenges specific to each sourcing option.
- Consumer-off-the-Shelf Devices (COTS): Devices that are designed for the average consumer that can be purchased from stores and are typically brands like Apple, Samsung, LG, etc (also known as original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs). These devices are then paired with an MDM/EMM to support creating a dedicated kiosk experience.
- Custom Devices (DIY): Devices are custom built to your product’s specs and sourced straight from the manufacturer. These devices will typically include an OS (often Android) built in-house and designed for your specific use case.
- Mobile IaaS Devices (MIaaS): A Mobile Infrastructure provider that combines enterprise first mobile devices along with developer tools to build a custom OS, and cloud services to manage your device fleet.
🌐 Cost Factors
Consideration #2: Cost Factors
What are all the major cost factors you need to consider when evaluating hardware options?
A few key things your team should determine when choosing hardware is what balance you will need to strike between cost and performance, what features and functionality will you need to support your use case, if you have the budget to cover any needed R&D costs, and how much time your team is able or willing to devote towards device setup—because let’s be honest, time is money!
As an example, when it comes to evaluating feature needs, it’s important to consider things like processing power, connectivity needs, ruggedization, etc. While some use cases may only require simple data capture and wouldn’t need cellular connectivity (e.g. a wifi-only point-of-sale), others may require more powerful processing capabilities and LTE cellular connectivity (e.g. an AI dashcam). You want to make sure you’re picking the best device so you’re not overpaying for features you don’t need while also meeting your core requirements.
What hardware option makes the most sense for your device use case, software solution, and wallet?
Going with a COTS device can have its perks when it comes to cost and purchasing—it provides your team with a wide variety of hardware options at various performance and cost levels, and gives you the flexibility to quickly find the right device. You will also limit the upfront investment required because you won’t need to dedicate resources to things like R&D or certification.
Often times the consumer OEMs with trusted brand names and reliable supply are targeted towards the high-end market, meaning they have the latest and greatest features (which you might not need). This combination ultimately leads to a higher than desired price point. COTS devices also require a lot of hands-on, manual setup. These processes typically include the tedious task of removing unnecessary apps that are pre-installed on the device—better known as device bloat (to read more about OS considerations, download our white paper). This means either hiring a third-party service to set up the device or dedicating internal developer and/or operation team’s precious time and resources on mundane processes—when they could be spending that time adding new features to your app.
What about going the DIY route? Does your team need a large number of devices? Are there unique hardware specs or designs that are needed to compliment the app functionality? These are all questions you should be asking yourself when considering this option.
The DIY option is great when you need specific, unique specs for your use case. Manufacturers can provide a competitive per-unit price (for larger fleet of devices)—especially when compared to devices of similar quality in the consumer space. The best part? The manufacturers can often handle the majority of your setup and provisioning process during assembly—meaning your cost spent on device setup is minimized.
If you have a tight budget however, this option may not be the best fit for your team. One of the major challenges with going the more custom route is the high upfront R&D, design, and tooling costs, which can often scare people away from pursuing this option. If your volumes are high enough, this investment can be amortized across your fleet, but still requires a large upfront capital expenditure. Additionally, beyond the upfront capital investment, there can also be a lot of time and resources dedicated to finding the manufacturers and building out an in-house team with hardware knowledge.
MIaaS is a great option to consider as a balance between COTS and DIY. An upside of this solution is that it provides competitive per-unit prices (similar to DIY), with the added benefit of the devices already being designed for enterprise usage—meaning no additional upfront costs required for the design and development of hardware. This solution also comes with an enterprise OS, which means that all of the extra consumer apps or “bloat” that COTS devices have is not included, giving your developers more time to focus on building great apps.
Understandably, the variety of devices readily available in most MIaaS provider’s hardware portfolio is more limited than you’ll find in the consumer world. If you can’t find a device that meets your specs in your MIaaS provider’s existing portfolio, you may need to make some small hardware customizations, which typically requires a small NRE fee and larger volume orders. Though the cost will be less than going fully custom, it will add to your total expenses.
🌐 Hardware End-Of-Life
Consideration #3: Hardware End-Of-Life
What is device Lifecycle and how does it impact my hardware decision?
Device lifecycle is a huge factor that must be considered when choosing your hardware options. Your team should put thought into what the future of your product roadmap entails and the capabilities you may need when you grow and iterate your product. The degree to which end-of-life scenarios impact your business is tied to how drastic the hardware and/or software changes will be. Some changes can range from small internal or component improvements (e.g. iPhone X > iPhone Xs), to completely revamped form factors (e.g. iPhone 8 > iPhone X).
Pain points resulting from end-of-life scenarios can include:
- Spending time retesting and revalidating your app functionality on new hardware
- Having to resubmit to regulatory bodies like the FDA
- Sourcing or building new accessories such as device cases or peripherals
- Training support staff to troubleshoot new hardware
Thinking about going the COTS route? It’s important to know that devices in this option are targeted towards consumers, where new device hardware versions are constantly being marketed and released to keep the market fresh and enticed to buy. Typically the average lifecycle of these devices range between 9 – 18 months till end-of-life.
Unfortunately, there really aren’t any advantages with going the COTS route when it comes to the end-of-life of a dedicated device. It’s an inevitable occurrence, so the best you can do is try to find the OEMs that support their devices for longer periods of time. Generally, the longer lifecycle devices will be higher-end models or from more premium OEMs like Apple.
Device lifecycle is one of the biggest challenges associated with COTS hardware. Consumer OEMs that make their money on hardware bank on “planned obsolescence,” meaning you can often only source devices for 9 – 18 months. This slows down your team when you have to spend time and resources testing new hardware, and continues to drain resources while you need to support older devices that are still deployed in the field. Beyond having challenges sourcing existing devices, consumer OEMs typically keep their roadmaps close to the vest, which also makes it harder to plan your product roadmap.
A major benefit of going the DIY route is having more control over the supply of the device, allowing you to extend the lifecycle and minimizing the number of hardware changes you need to account for in a given period of time. Manufacturing the device yourself also lets you control your future roadmap without having to fit your product to the latest popular form factors in the consumer world.
In order to avoid unexpected hardware changes found with COTS devices, you will need to be prepared to have a team to closely manage and research the variable component trends, specifically screen sizes, so you aren’t forced into designing new hardware due to lack of supply. Additionally, the further away you get from mainstream consumer devices, the harder and more expensive it will be to continue manufacturing your devices to those specs due to what components are readily available.
Built with the enterprise in mind, the devices found in a MIaaS provider’s portfolio are designed to have lifecycles of 3+ years. On top of that, you will also benefit from full transparency into the product roadmap so you know what hardware changes can be expected and when existing devices will go end-of-life—which can be extremely helpful in planning your own product roadmaps.
There really aren’t any major lifecycle challenges when going with a MIaaS solution. This is due to these dedicated devices being designed specifically for enterprises looking to create and support full-stack solutions for multiple years.
Consideration #4: Connectivity
What type of connectivity requirements will fit my product use case best?
Where will your fleet of devices be deployed? Domestically or internationally? In a static location or on-the-go? Your device will almost certainly need some sort of connectivity—whether it’s wifi, cellular, Bluetooth, NFC, etc. Thinking through these requirements upfront can save you a lot of pain down the road. Even if you think you’ll only need wifi, going with a device that supports cellular connectivity can act as a great fail-safe. This is especially true in industries like retail and healthcare, where the collection of data is critical, and loss of connectivity can shut a business down. Even though a device with cellular connectivity will cost more, it can have huge payoffs in terms of risk mitigation.
Some important factors to consider are connectivity speed requirements, types of connectivity, and where your devices will need connectivity. For example, if you do plan to use cellular data, and you are also deploying devices globally, you will want to research how many SKUs you will need to support the countries you’re deployed in. The more SKUs you need to support, the more challenging your operations will become.
Most larger consumer OEMs have a global presence, meaning you will have the ability to source devices that can get connectivity in almost any country. You should also be able to find a variety of devices to support different speeds and types of connectivity (e.g. NFC, Bluetooth, etc.), along with the latest and greatest in connectivity technology.
What makes using this option challenging is that most consumer OEMs will have multiple SKUs of the same device type that are optimized for different regions (e.g. a slightly different iPhone X for North America than for Asia). This can add operational complexities when dealing with larger fleets of devices, especially if they are fulfilled from a central location. It also adds increased importance to your forecasting, because you will have to purchase devices based on where they will be deployed, and if you over-purchase for a specific area you’ll be stuck with devices that can’t be used.
Designing the device from the ground up means you can build your device to be optimized for specific connectivity types or regions. For example, if you don’t need fast data speeds, you could design your device to work on global 3G networks that work in a larger number of countries, allowing you to minimize the number of SKUs needed to support global deployments. Additionally, if you have any unique connectivity requirements, like a certain Bluetooth version, you will have more flexibility to define, test, and support those specs.
The other side of that coin is that when you’re designing your device, you need to make sure you account for all the countries where you might need connectivity. If you don’t include the proper bands to work in a specific region, you either can’t get connectivity in that area or you need to design and certify a new SKU (to read more about things like certification considerations, download our white paper). You’ll want to include enough bands to support your current and future needs, without paying for or designing your device to work with bands you may never use.
Devices in a MIaaS portfolio are often designed to account for maximized coverage and minimized operational complexities. This can have its perks, especially if you plan to ship devices to a number of different regions because it means there is often a single device SKU that can get global connectivity. This allows you to order and manage a single device SKU to support your global device deployments, and also gives you the flexibility you need as you scale your business and target markets. If you’re starting out, you can begin with a targeted region without having to worry about how you will scale in the future.
Because these devices are designed with a long lifecycle in mind, there can also be longer periods of time between when new models are released. Though you can count on new device options being released, the refresh of your specific SKU might not be on a 9 – 12 month cadence like in the consumer world. This means you may not always have the latest cellular technology available. If you’re purchasing a device today, most options should have global LTE availability, however, you may have to upgrade to a newer device type in the future to leverage emerging technologies like 5G.
🌐 Hardware Customization
Consideration #5: Hardware Customization
Will your team need to customize any of the device hardware and how will that impact your business?
Customized devices can be a great product differentiator and can definitely give your team a competitive advantage, so considering if your product can benefit from customizations is important.
Some things to consider are how much internal expertise you’ll need to build up to do the customization, if there are creative ways to make the product look or feel custom without designing something new from scratch, and overall impact that customization can have in differentiating your product. For example, in remote monitoring scenarios within healthcare, having a smaller device that can be easily carried around can be a great differentiator. Or having a device that can leverage power-over-ethernet can lead to a huge power and infrastructure cost savings.
There are limited advantages of going with a COTS device when your solution needs a device with customized hardware. This, unfortunately, is not an option with this solution.
Because you have no control over the devices in the consumer world, your best bet will be to build custom accessories to give the device a custom functionality. While this has been done before, these devices are not designed to be used as part of a larger whole, so it can often create a Frankenstein-like product. Additionally, you will have to have someone on your team with hardware design expertise or work with a third-party design shop which can get pricey.
Customization definitely isn’t an issue when going the DIY route. You’ll have full control over the hardware specs needed to accomplish your vision (within reason), allowing you to create a seamless experience and a white-labeled product. This can be great if you have a specialized use case in industries like healthcare, manufacturing, or logistics.
The issue with DIY is it can become significantly pricier and take longer than other options. You should expect it to take at least 12 months to go to market with a device from scratch (depending on how custom you are going), and it will also require steep upfront and R&D costs. In most cases, this option also calls for additional hardware expertise, whether hired internally or through an outsourced third-party service. It’s not a good idea to rely exclusively on your manufacturing partners for hardware design and decision making. Lastly, you’ll want to look out for potential future supply chain issues depending on how unique your customizations are and how rare the associated components are.
Looking for a happy medium option that won’t break the bank?
While the base device form factor will be standard, you can often request limited hardware customizations from your MIaaS provider (e.g. removing a camera). Most providers also design their base devices to be compatible with different accessory types, and will work with you to produce a custom accessory that can be used in conjunction with your base device (e.g. imagine a handheld device with a custom case that includes a payment processor for a mobile point-of-sale product). This gets you a device that doesn’t look like it’s been tied together with duct tape and dental floss, and allows you to lean on your MIaaS providers’ design expertise instead of having to build up an internal team.
Drastic hardware customization is expensive and complicated (especially to the base device), which means if you’re looking to keep costs down, you will be somewhat handcuffed by the customizations options available. If you find yourself requiring unique hardware specifications, it’s better to explore building a custom device from the ground up or talk to your MIaaS provider about how much more complex customizations would cost.
🌐 What will your future hardware for your device look like?
What will your future hardware for your device look like?
You have a lot to consider before diving in and making a decision on what hardware option makes the most sense for you and your team but hopefully these considerations have provided a guide to help steer your choice into the best option that fits your budget and product road map whether it be COTS, DIY or MIaaS. If you want to learn more about how Mason can help you with your hardware needs feel free to reach out firstname.lastname@example.org.