If the smartphone revolution taught us just one thing, it’s that software sells hardware. That may be nothing new to computer users who’ve been buying their boxes for years, but it’s still a fairly new phenomenon in the mobile communications world.
It may raise a few eyebrows to learn, then, that mobile applications, or ‘apps’ as they’re better known, are revolutionising the way we view one of the pioneers of mobile communications: the two-way radio.
Yes, the humble walkie-talkie is undergoing the same app-driven frenzy that turned mobile phones into man’s best digital friend almost overnight (in technology terms).
And walkie-talkies are certainly here to stay – they are still necessary devices and irreplaceable for communicating on mine sites, across factory floors, manufacturing plants, trucking fleets, fire engines and in police cars. In fact, when a life-saving call needs to be made, chances are it’s being made on a two-way radio.
The digital revolution
There’s a reason why I’m talking about apps and two-way radios in the same sentence: digital two-way radio.
Digital technology has transformed the way we see and hear our world, and communicate with each other. Through the digitisation of photos, videos and sound waves, TVs have slimmed down and sharpened up, we can see the news as it happens, and phone conversations no longer have that ‘underwater tunnel’ feel about them.
The same technology is at work in the walkie-talkie world, and has been for some time. Digital two-way radio is already deeply entrenched in Australia’s core public and private industries; from police personnel and firefighters to security guards at your local store, digital radio handsets are today standard-issue equipment that no officer leaves home without. The same goes for many factory workers around the country, and many within Australia’s mining industry.
Today’s digital two-way radios already support basic apps such as data connectivity and GPS, and are already leagues ahead in terms of technology than their analogue ancestors. But unlike fast-selling mobile phones bought by individuals, two-way radios are built to withstand the harsh working environments of a range of business industries, and are generally viewed as a longer-term investment.
While many companies are still happily using their analogue handsets, the switch to digital is now occurring at a rapid pace.
Enter the app
Two-way radio apps are increasingly being developed to suit specific business needs, as opposed to organisations working around the standard apps to make them fit.
There are hundreds of two-way radio software application developers across the Asia-Pacific region alone, focused on developing business-specific applications for public safety, manufacturing, transport and logistics, security, hospitality, construction and mining organisations.
As these apps are being developed, two-way radio handsets are beginning to replace other proprietary devices that were previously used for the sole purpose of performing one or more specialised functions – functions that can now be done by the radio and the app.
For example, the “Man Down” application is one that is transforming the way organisations are approaching worker safety. When a two-way radio is tipped past 90 degrees for 90 seconds, an alarm is triggered, usually signifying that a worker is in distress. The GPS tracking system then sends a link to a mapping application which pinpoints where the distressed worker is.
Automation applications are particularly useful on mine sites as these organisations seek to reduce operational downtime and increase revenue. The two-way radio here can be used to alert head base if a truck is speeding or in the wrong area, helping the company not only ensure the safety of its staff, but increase operational efficiency.
Indoor tracking systems allows construction site managers to determine whether workers are in dangerous areas while enabling the automatic logging on and off for workers, creating efficiencies in the accounting office.
Wireless heart rate monitors issued to fire-fighting teams are also growing in popularity, allowing officers to manage and monitor the welfare of personnel in life-critical situations.
Name an industry, and there’s an application being developed for it.
The more powerful the app, the more powerful the radio becomes, and as apps start to talk to each other and ‘work’ together, so the power of each handset (and the digital radio network to which all handsets are connected) rises exponentially.
But wait – haven’t we seen this all before?
Indeed we have. It’s the same phenomenon that’s rendered ‘ordinary’ 2G mobile phones all but obsolete in Australia (and other developed economies). We’ve also seen it give birth to a whole new class of device – the Tablet – which, if current trends persist, will outsell smartphones by a massive margin in the not too distant future, and all because Tablets can do more with apps.
Apps make ordinary devices extraordinary. They give them smarts beyond the basic purposes they were designed for. In the case of devices that are used to share information, they create their own unique ecosystems, multiplying their usefulness by the increasing number of people that use those ecosystems every day.
And, in the case of devices previously never envisioned to support them, they sometimes create a dramatic shift in how those devices are used, and what they’re used for.
Walk this way
It’s funny how we take successive technologies for granted. Few homes in Australia still use analogue TVs, yet it was only a few years ago that TV manufacturers still considered flatscreen digital TVs a ‘hard sell’.
By next year most analogue TV signals will be switched off for good. With that, analogue TVs will become little more than an old curiosity for a new generation.
Analogue radio still has some way to go before its signals are ever ‘switched off’. That said, adoption of digital two-way radios in Australia is growing rapidly, with the country boasting one of the fastest migration rates in the world.
More and more, applications are driving the sale, not the hardware itself.
What sets digital two-way radios apart from the smartphone is the future proofing possibilities: rather than constantly upgrading radios to the newest models, two-way radios – which are built to be far more durable – can be easily upgraded through software. And increasingly, applications are being developed to suit the specific requirements of a business – rather than the business working around the application.
We won’t know for sure what the walkie-talkie of the future will ultimately look like, which apps it will use or which platform will rule the roost. All we know is that apps are now driving the popularity of devices for companies across Australia. It’s these apps that are changing the way we live, work and stay safe, again.
Bevan Clarke is the General Manager of Radio Solutions at Motorola Solutions.