Eleven years ago, Brittania Air, a charter airline in the UK, equipped their flight attendants with a mobile solution provided by LogicaCMG. The solution consisted primarily of ruggedised devices and an application built on top of a mobile database from Sybase. The solution was expensive, and provided only a small set of functions, but Brittania Air enjoyed a number of benefits, including a reduction in bulky documentation that needed to be brought on board.
That was back in the days when mobile devices and apps were designed either for enterprise use of consumer use, but very rarely both. Enterprises had to pay for services from specialised systems integrators to build a bespoke solution that performed only one or two carefully-defined functions. Specialised middleware was needed to provide offline access to a relational database on a constrained device.
Since Brittania Air first flew with mobile, many things have changed. The small company underwent name changes and acquisitions, and is now part of Thomson Airways, the world's largest charter airline. But more importantly, a revolution has occurred in the way IT departments build solutions.
Whereas before CIOs had to hire expensive consultants and buy custom-built devices, now they can go to Sainsbury's to get inexpensive consumer devices, which are easy to use, and for which thousands of productivity apps are available off the shelf. It's also easy to develop bespoke apps in-house, on the same devices.
This trend towards the consumerisation of IT has opened new possibilities to companies; and American Airlines is one organisation that has jumped on the opportunity and taken a lead in their industry.
As a result, the company has enjoyed a number of benefits. According to American Airlines CIO Maya Leibman: "The people who load the aircraft now have a handheld device and can scan the bag tag when it's going in. Previously, they would count the bags as they went in. Now if a bag that needs to go to LA gets on a flight to New York, the device vibrates and flashes and makes a beeping sound. So it's hard to ignore the mistake. As a result, we have reduced the mis-load rate by 65%."
Another benefit according to Leibman, is eliminating the need to carry a bunch of manuals and charts in a heavy suitcase. Those documents are now stored in electronic form on iPads. Rather than carry around a forty-pound bag full of documents, the pilots have everything on a one-and-a-half pound device.
But with consumerisation comes at lease one issue for enterprise users. Consumer devices become obsolete very quickly. While pilots love iPads, the flight attendants chose to use Samsung Note, because those devices fit nicely in the palms of their hands, and can be carried in their aprons. The model they use was out of production two months after American Airlines finished the entire roll out. The company can't easily upgrade to Note 3, because the Note 3 has some physical differences that make it impossible to fit the devices in the casings, which were designed for Note 1.
But this is only a minor headache for CIOs who bet on inexpensive mass-produced devices with intuitive interfaces. As American Airlines has learned, if you can deal with the short product life cycles, you can fly high with consumerisation.