Remember the days when you couldn't turn on the TV without hearing the commercial that echoed “There's an app for that,” after numerous descriptions of application-based solutions for everyday tasks such as counting the calories in your lunch, finding where you parked your car or getting the latest snow conditions on the mountain? Believe it or not, that commercial, from 2009, was for the first iPhone, and just three years later look how far that technology has taken us.

The access to high-level information that smartphones have made so accessible has changed the culture in the United States and other developed countries around the globe. Mobile technology, which began with laptops, then smartphones and now tablets, in a very short amount of time has altered the way we communicate and get information in our personal lives — a cultural shift that has migrated into the way we do business as well.

Information and data that once was accessible only from a desktop environment is now available from virtually anywhere on any mobile device with a 3G or wireless connection, a fact that is shortening the culture's collective patience and shifting the expectation for information access to real time.

The rental industry and its software and technology providers are closely following the trend and enormous popularity of mobile-based technologies. Most offer solutions to their rental customers specifically developed for use on smartphone and tablet devices. So, is there an app for that? The answer: If there's not a rental app, there is probably a mobile-based application solution to turn to and more people than ever are accessing their business data this way.

According to a second-quarter 2012 report by The Nielsen Co., smartphone penetration continued to grow in the most recent quarter with 54.9 percent of U.S. mobile subscribers owning smartphones as of June 2012. The growth of smartphone purchases has now outpaced feature phone purchases with two out of three Americans who acquired a new mobile phone in the past three months choosing a smartphone, according to Nielsen, a global leader in consumer measurement and information.

“Mobile capabilities greatly enhance the ability for rental companies to increase revenue and customer satisfaction,” says Richard Hercus, Ramco Systems Corp. director of sales, Enterprise Solutions Group/Americas. “Sales teams are able to provide quotes as well as check availability of assets and resources real-time. One of our mobile apps is for labor management and time reporting, which assists with job costing and eliminates missed billings.”

So what is the difference between a downloadable mobile device application (an app) and a software solution developed specifically for and optimized for mobile devices?

A mobile app, like those touted in the first-ever iPhone commercial, is a software application that is downloaded and installed directly onto a mobile device. These apps are generally developed for a limited purpose and to achieve just a few things. An app can work in one of two ways — it can connect to content over the Internet and pull and save that content, or it can be designed to access content without an Internet connection for even greater accessibility. One drawback to device-specific apps is that they are typically designed for compatibility with only one operating system, for example either Apple iOS, Android or Windows. So for a solution provider to meet the needs of all its customers it will likely need to invest in developing the app across all platforms — a costly proposition.

“The key difference is that apps are specialized, limited-use programs that run in the mobile operating system and fetch data from a remote server,” says Jason Albus, systems engineer, Point-of-Rental Systems. “In contrast, a mobile-based solution offers the entire set of features and services to the mobile device. Typically this is done as a web application or a virtual desktop.”

A website that is optimized for use on mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, has been created specifically for use on the small-screen displays of mobile devices and with a touch-screen interface. This solution offers mobile-friendly content to the broadest possible audience because it is not limited by operating system. In addition, a mobile-enhanced website offers more flexibility in updating content because page changes are visible in real-time to users, unlike mobile apps, which have to be updated manually on the individual device to which it is installed. “This is especially important in rental inventory management when availability or rates are checked from a remote location — the information must be accurate of the moment,” explains J.J. Shea, general manager for Solutions by Computer.

“By developing mobile user access to our software designed for mobile users, we reduce the complexity and the cost radically,” says Patrice Boivin, president and CEO, Orion Software. “We preferred developing simplified screens in our application that can be accessed remotely through a cloud mobile connection. It's more efficient for everyone as it's portable on any technologies and does not require an additional layer of software. Users don't need to be trained, they can get more power in their hands, and they can access the whole application if they want.”

Because the accessibility is greater across a broad audience and array of operating systems and the costs are less, most rental software providers have chosen to apply their resources to optimizing their software solutions for mobile devices.

“We think that apps are great for simple things like checking the weather or daily totals, but when those quick glances spur further analysis, the app's usefulness hits a wall,” says Albus. “This is why we continue to promote the full experience of the Point-of-Rental system in a virtual desktop on mobile devices. This allows a mobile worker to perform any and every rental task no matter where they are. We augment this functionality with web applications that work across mobile platforms and run in the mobile browser.”

When Solutions by Computer developed the e-portal for its Enfinity software, the company determined that the functionality was best delivered over the Internet via a mobile website to allow for wider distribution. “Our e-portal is designed around database-driven applications that replicate functionality like rate checks exactly as they are done in the rental store,” explains Shea. “It lets end renters check rates, submit rental requests, see equipment out on rent, call equipment off rent and view their account reports from any browser.

“We want to be careful not to divert resources to app development in cases where a mobile website serves the rental business better. That being said, we're evaluating priorities for various app options with an eye toward possible future development.”

Wynne Systems, which spotlighted its mobile application this year at The Rental Show, built the application to offer the same functionality relevant to field salespeople and technicians that is included in its AXIOM ERP product.

“A big drawback with apps is their inflexibility with updating or editing content without requiring a download,” says Michael Stilwagner, vice president of business development, Wynne Systems. “For those in the field, easy access to their equipment inventory and being able to create a rental or return on the spot is what mobile technology caters to.”

While most rental software providers have taken the path that bypasses device-specific app development, there are, however, exceptions and a few software companies have developed apps to meet the needs of some clients. Corporate Services, for example, has developed three apps specifically for Windows Mobile-based devices. Its Mobile Inventory app allows users to view inventory that is currently assigned to a specific bin/shelf/location, find where it should be and perform movements of inventory from location to location from the mobile device.

Its Mobile Fleet app is a front end for the company's repair and maintenance module that allows users to select tags and tasks they are working on and post times and notes about work they are doing. And its Mobile TrakQuip allows the user to generate ticket creation and ticket return entries that can be uploaded and processed in the main application.

“We are always investigating and creating more mobile apps across various platforms, but what most of our clients that have voiced a need have concluded is that with a tablet-sized device it is just as beneficial to have access to the full application via a Remote Desktop or Citrix connection rather than having us create a less-featured version that may or may not be useful to them,” says Michael Saint, president, Corporate Services.

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functional mobility

So how can shifting some of an employee's functions in a rental company from a desktop to a mobile device impact the business? For starters, it can improve efficiencies for everyone from your rental counter staff to your outside sales people, who probably can't stay competitive without the use of at least one mobile device.

RER looked into what types of functionality rental software providers have made possible from mobile devices.

Alert Management Systems offers its Mobile Inventory Manager for its software users to allow them to perform a paperless physical inventory of the rental fleet or warehouse from their smartphone or tablet. Mobile Reports was developed for use on mobile devices to allow remote salespeople to check equipment availability in real time, and review open contracts and customer information without having to call in and tie up the rental counter.

“The most important underlying concept, in terms of both cost reduction and revenue potential, is the expansion of ‘self-service’ opportunities,” says Rob Ross, president, Alert Management Systems. “So your customer can get the equipment and services they need in the most convenient manner with the least amount of administrative friction. At the same time, self-service frees up your most knowledgeable staff to provide the ‘high touch’ customer consulting that can help you overcome price objections and improve customer loyalty.

“Your staff can use their own devices. We think these types of apps will have widespread appeal going forward, particularly since they don't require proprietary hardware or custom software investments.”

RMI released its mobile offering in 2011, a device-independent functionality that allows it to function on any smartphone or tablet device regardless of operating system. Designed for use by rental company employees who work away from the office setting, Mobile Users offers specific functionality for four types of users — rentals, sales, service and warehouse management. For the rental user, which includes order fillers and delivery drivers, the mobile application allows the user to fill rental orders for delivery and complete rental returns when equipment comes off rent. Outside sales staff can look up items to provide customers with detailed equipment information as well as enter sales orders from the field. Service technicians can view service orders, easily enter parts and labor used on a work order and change the work order status.

“The most important rental features for our Mobile Users are rental shipments and returns,” says David Richards, vice president - client services for RMI. “This insures the proper equipment is being delivered and returned by using bar code scanning. We have found that during this process the use of inspection tickets along with the ability to take pictures of damaged equipment has been very useful for our customers. Another important rental feature is the ability to issue rental quotes that can be converted to a live order while a sales rep is onsite.”

Point-of-Rental Systems' suite of software is compatible with mobile devices running iOS, Android and Windows operating systems. Rental business owners can access all reservations and open contracts, write new contracts, check availability of an item or look at their corporate dashboards to see how the overall business is doing — all from their mobile device. The rental store's customers can view the inventory, safety documents, invoices, statements and even rent equipment using their mobile device.

“We see the desire for specialized rental apps, but there is an added cost to support the various mobile operating systems,” says Albus. “We attempt to mitigate the challenge of picking the right mobile operating system by focusing on web applications that work inside any mobile or desktop browser. It gets the same effect as an app, but is not tied to a vendor like Apple.”

Software developer inspHire Inc. offers its inspHire iX application, designed in HTML5 and accessible on any compatible mobile device. Live inventory information, rental rates, availability and technical information are accessible at the swipe of a finger. Additionally, up-to-date customer information and their locations are easily accessible, and management can access the software's business intelligence dashboards while on the move.

“The rental industry will continue to incorporate mobile technology as it becomes more ubiquitous. It is easy to forget that the iPad was introduced less than three years ago, so this market is still in its infancy. The rental industry may even be forced to change faster than other businesses, since many of its customers are among the most savvy mobile technology users. After all, construction contractors are often credited with helping spur the early adoption of mobile phone technology in the first place, over 20 years ago.”

The company's Mobile Working module is designed to drive efficiencies in picking equipment, updating service records and allocating parts to maintenance jobs. This module incorporates barcoding and RFID to save time. inspHire also offers customers a WebPortal that is accessible from mobile devices. “Gaining access to live rental information, specialist reports and a full product catalog can allow your customers to self-serve 24 hours a day,” says Olly Williamson, vice president, inspHire Inc. “Being able to easily look up customer information or equipment specifications with the swipe of a thumb cannot be underestimated as increasingly we are all used to having access to information quickly 24/7.”

Access to rental business software from mobile devices makes live inventory information, rental rates, availability and technical information accessible at the swipe of a finger. Image courtesy of inspHire Inc..

A heavily adopted functionality used by Solutions by Computer mobile device users is the Email Updates function, which automatically generates emails that notify rental operators via smartphone or tablet when something of interest to management occurs such as a delinquency resulting in an overbooking, a risk alarm or a quotation follow-up. The software's setting allows for each type of notification to be sent to a different person.

Texada Software's upcoming Systematic Rental Software version 9.1 will feature what it calls Zero Foot Print deployment — the ability to launch the entire application (or scaled back subsets of the application) through any device that supports a web browser without having to install anything native on the device itself. This will allow its customers to use any mobile device, running any platform to log into their Systematic Rental Management applications. “Our goal is to continually put information into the hands of people that need it when they need it wherever they happen to be,” says Brian Spilak, president, Texada Software.

Software developers agree, dependence on mobile technology will continue to increase with more automation and seamless interaction between the different devices and software solutions.

“The most important limiters today are latency and service area gaps, which make it difficult to rely exclusively on mobile devices for the rental counter or in a delivery truck,” says Alert's Ross. “On the other hand, ‘early adopters’ are already using smartphones and tablets to perform a multitude of tasks in the field, from basic mapping and navigation to remote access to ‘dashboard’ functions for dispatch and delivery.