A couple of years ago, if you asked anyone involved in aircraft maintenance if they were using mobile apps to support their business you would get a fairly consistent answer:
“No, but we’d love to.”
This was probably the most common response, closely followed by:
“No, but we’ve bought a couple of iPads to investigate the possibilities.”
Back then, it was fairly clear that everybody knew what you were talking about when you mentioned mobility, and the demand was high for a suite of solutions. Now that there are a couple of mobility options available for aircraft maintenance and some of the use cases are better understood, I get a different answer when I ask the same question:
“Well, it depends what you mean when you say MOBILE.”
This is something I hear a lot. Thanks to the lack of ubiquity it seems to me that mobility in aerospace MRO is one of those subjects that people struggle to define, but they do know it when they see it. I figured it was probably about time that somebody attempted to define exactly what we mean when we’re talking about mobile apps for aerospace MRO.
Device & Operating System
For many people, the main characteristic of a mobile app was the platform on which it ran. If an app could run on a mobile phone or a tablet, then it was considered truly mobile.
Fair enough I suppose, but the lines are becoming increasingly blurred between device categorization. When does a phone stop becoming a phone and start becoming a tablet? When does a tablet stop becoming a tablet and start becoming a laptop? Is there a market for a desktop computer anymore?
We also have a dizzying choice of operating systems available. If the app runs on iOS or Android, then it’s definitely a mobile app. What about Windows 8 and now Windows 10? I have friends who have replaced their old desktops with the MS Surface Pro 3 and are running server-grade software on them. The Surface is definitely a tablet and therefore a mobile device, but I wouldn’t describe MS SQL as a mobile app, that’s for sure.
So I think it’s a mistake to rely solely on the device to characterize a mobile app. Many airlines and MROs require a mixture of devices to suit their multiple use cases. Whilst an iPad might be suitable for one set of tasks, a ruggedized device with a keyboard might be more preferable for another. Both devices could be running the same software on different platforms, but is an iPad any more mobile than a ToughBook?
Online or Offline?
Working asynchronously (aka offline) is a major characteristic of mobility in aerospace. Getting a wireless signal to remote parts of the world — and even most airports and hangars — can be a major problem. Working whilst the user is offline is therefore a key consideration for any aerospace MRO mobile app.
However, as mobile networks and content transmission mechanisms become increasingly sophisticated, the need to operate in a wholly offline manner is becoming less and less of an issue. The storage and download requirements for entire libraries of content make the offline argument less attractive. As apps and distribution systems aim to push more atomized context to users, the need to remain up-to-date is a greater concern then the ability to access it.
For these reasons, I would say that the offline capability is a consideration for mobility, but it is no longer a defining factor. Instead, smart hybrid systems that are able to seamlessly switch between online and offline modes without the user having to care are more the norm and expectation for users in aerospace MRO.
Consumerization of User Interface
The demand for mobility in aerospace took off with the launch of Apple’s iPad in April 2010. The iPad demonstrated that it was possible to put awesome mobile software onto a cheap device that users loved.
The appeal and benefits were obvious. If business software could be anywhere near as good as consumer software, then users could be more productive, more efficient, and happier as well. Apps that were designed for iOS and Android had a certain user interface hallmark that was instantly recognizable, and all of a sudden the demand for exceptional user experiences in enterprise software couldn’t be ignored.
Today, it is normal to expect aesthetically pleasing software everywhere, and the previously recognizable characteristics of a mobile app are not limited to mobile apps alone. However, a mobile app should still be highly optimized for touch, should employ responsive design to ensure compatibility with multiple device form factors, and should have a very simple design making use of a typically smaller screen real estate.