Mobile User Interface on the Plant Floor

Is the plant floor the next frontier in mobile user interface devices? The need for continuous dynamic data at the managers’ fingertips, anywhere in the plant at anytime, is driving a change in the way that manufacturing intelligence is viewed and accessed.

Most plant floor PC-based HMIs (human-machine interfaces) almost exclusively use the Microsoft Windows operating system. But, this dominance in PCs does not carry over to mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets. A mobile version of Windows has been around since 2000. Microsoft chose to try and leverage their dominance in the PC arena and model their mobile user interface after the larger PC interface. But with the small phone screen, this meant very small objects for the users to select using a stylus. Apple, however changed everything when they came out with the iPhone that gave a user a completely different interface.

The iPhone interface chose the human finger over stylus as the primary interface device which means larger targets can be selected with your finger. Capacitive instead of resistive touch screens allow multi-touch to facilitate the use of more than one finger at a time and gestures that allow more commands than the typical mouse left and right click. Capacitive touch has changed the way we interact with technology, but what has happened since then? Who are the major industry players now?

This revolutionized the smartphone industry and Microsoft called a seven hour meeting of their top Windows Phone personnel to decide what to do about it. They decided they would have to completely rewrite their mobile operating system but this would take time. In the meantime, Google came out with their Android operating system that started slowly but is now on more smart phones than even Apple’s iOS. Apple also introduced their iPad with a similar user interface to the iPhone. Microsoft had tried to nurture a tablet form factor for the Windows OS but was never successful. With Apple’s success with the iPad, Google and Microsoft are trying to catch up.

To compete with iOS, Microsoft first came out with the Windows 7 Phone with their Metro User Interface. Although it received good reviews from the press, Microsoft’s mobile OS market share has continued to fall. Now Microsoft is readying their Windows 8 desktop and tablet OS that will use the same Metro UI as Windows Phone 7. But Microsoft has a long way to catch up in the mobile OS space. Most people know at least one person with an iOS or Android OS device they can use to tryout the user interface. It can be difficult to find someone with a Windows 7 Phone, so Microsoft has created a web site that allows you to try out the Metro UI on your iOS or Android Phone.

It will be interesting to see if Microsoft’s strategy of using the same Metro UI across desktop, tablet and phone, along with their dominant position in the HMI, market can push their mobile OS onto the plant floor. And we will be watching to see if HMI software vendors will help iOS, Android or Windows 8/Windows Phone 7 by officially supporting their software on one or more of these mobile OS.