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How small businesses can pick the right mobile devices

To cash-strapped SMBs, deploying mobile devices may seem excessive. However, mobile devices are valuable tools to increase communication and productivity for business users.

Users rely on many different devices, including smartphones, tablets, laptops and even IoT devices, to perform business-critical tasks. But SMBs may not have the budget for all these devices, putting them in a difficult spot.

This can create challenges for SMBs from a cost perspective and around managing data governance and access. However, it also creates opportunities for businesses to learn and evolve with the growing needs of their users. Purchasing and deploying mobile devices can increase worker productivity, improve employee communication from any location and ensure company data stays in the proper channels.

Deploying mobile devices within a small business

When someone is looking to check email, send a quick message to a coworker, look at the weather, see what traffic and commute look like, or take a picture, what is the device they reach for? The answer is often a smartphone. They have come a long way since their inception. They can now do the same tasks and workflows a traditional laptop can do with the advantage of being faster and more effective, using Wi-Fi or cellular data, and operating anywhere.

As small businesses grow and scale, arming their workforce with smartphones, tablets or other mobile devices scales productivity as well as modernize workflows that previously required a tool belt of devices.

Most people understand the value a smartphone brings to their personal productivity, like emailing, viewing social media, and keeping connected with coworkers. But mobile devices are not just tools for emailing and messaging. Consider a traditional retail environment: employees are often scanning and capturing pictures of stock and inventory, scanning multiple barcodes, looking up stock for a customer, calling or radioing another coworker, and much more.

A worker may need three or more specialized devices to complete those tasks. Mobile devices can consolidate necessary technologies and software onto a single device. Additionally, consolidating hardware also can cut device and administrative costs, reducing the number of devices and associated costs a company maintains. Initial hardware deployment costs may spike the device budget at first, but there will be TCO benefits in the long run.

What to look for in a mobile device for an SMB

Deploying mobile devices to employees in an SMB isn't as simple as choosing any device off the shelf and expecting it to perform every function. There are many devices available for purchase -- both iOS and Android -- that can serve as general-purpose devices accommodating most tasks. But there are others performing in specific conditions and executing targeted functions.

Additionally, businesses should think about how to provision and manage devices, what that experience looks like for the user, and what use cases the device is needed for -- ranging from WFH to frontline workers. Are the SMB owners handing devices to an end user and expecting them to set up the device, install necessary applications, and maintain and update the device on their own?

SMBs need to consider device management alongside their device choices. They should look into management platforms such as mobile device management (MDM). Supplemental zero-touch enrollment programs, such as Apple Business Manager and Android Zero-Touch, helps short-staffed small businesses deploy mobile devices.

Picking rugged mobile devices vs. consumer-grade mobile devices

When choosing a mobile device for an SMB, consider what functions the user will need that device to perform. For everyday tasks for office, administration and sales workers, devices such as iPhone and Android models -- including Samsung, Google Pixel, ASUS and Motorola -- will work without any problems. These types of devices are called consumer devices. They're easy to purchase from first-party manufacturer storefronts, online storefronts, or cellular network providers, such as AT&T and Verizon.

If an SMB needs devices for more specific purposes, such as barcode scanning withstanding harsher environments, and running customized software or UI, rugged devices may be a better option. Rugged devices are built for specific workflows and include options such as embedded physical scanners, function buttons that administrators can assign to specific tasks, and more robust bodies to withstand accidental damage, such as drops and natural elements. Many rugged devices even have accessories such as hot-swappable batteries for devices that must be running continuously without powering down and charging accessories to let businesses scale their device fleet easier. Some common rugged device OEMs include Zebra, Honeywell, Datalogic, and Spectralink.

SMBs need to consider device management alongside their device choices. They should look into management platforms.

While rugged devices are built for these scenarios, some consumer mobile devices can be customized with rugged peripheral accessories and software to perform similar functions. Examples of this include smartphone cases that ruggedize the devices as well as software, such as SoftScan, that lets mobile devices use the native camera to scan complex 1D and 2D barcodes.

SMB owners should consider what features and capabilities they need that device to have. Additionally, they must develop a plan that covers how they're going to support these devices' updates, security and lifecycles. The last thing any SMB wants is to purchase a device that is only supported for a year and is vulnerable to security threats.

Apple has a long track record of supporting their devices for long periods. While Android devices have a mixed track record of device and security updates, Google's new Android Enterprise Recommended (AER) device site provides recommendations of devices with lengthy support. AER devices are certified by Google to be ready for use in a business setting and meet specifications, including devices update commitments from the OEM.

Managing mobile devices as an SMB

After choosing a device that fits the capabilities and features needed, SMBs should identify tools that allow them to manage all aspects of the device. These aspects include streamlining and automating the provisioning and setup experience, managing device and data access, and maintaining device updates and security.

A good place to start this search is with MDM and unified endpoint management platforms. These management platforms provide administrative tools and can enforce policy, security, and governance on devices. Administrators should look for platforms with policies and enforcement mechanisms that can manage and provide the following:

  • device encryption and pin code management;
  • email configurations;
  • Wi-Fi configurations;
  • application installation and configuration controls;
  • single sign-on;
  • data loss prevention policies;
  • over-the-air device wipe and reset options;
  • conditional access configurations;
  • automated device provisioning and setup with Apple Business Manager or Android Zero-Touch;
  • over-the-air device and security updates; and
  • device inventory and reporting.

These management platforms can help admins with different devices and OSes beyond iOS and Android, including Windows, macOS, and ChromeOS.

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