• By Renee Bassett
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By Renee Bassett, InTech, Chief Editor

Technology advances are exciting. Things that literally could not be done a generation ago are now common. But rapid technological change also can make people feel like they’re being chased by a snowball rolling down a hill. The snowball starts out small, and the run is exhilarating, but as its size and speed increase, it can feel like there’s no outracing the avalanche.

5G wireless communications can be one such avalanche, threatening to overwhelm industrial automation and operations professionals with pressure to respond to the hype. To help slow the roll of this particular snowball, this month’s cover story delivers stories of pilot projects and sources of technological expertise from folks who are planning to make the most of what 5G promises to deliver: high-bandwidth, low-latency, and highly reliable wireless communications.

The ones planning for 5G have in mind specific industrial applications, such as high-speed video inspection systems. But a whole lot of others, like those who have invested in third- and fourth-generation mobile computing devices, “are a little sensitive at this point to a transition,” says Bruce Willins, Zebra Technologies’ technology evangelist for mobile computing.

Willins says many Zebra customers in logistics, warehousing, and field service are holding on to 3G devices, but current events are forcing them to revamp their portfolios. Various Microsoft Windows operating systems commonly found in industrial devices will see the end of technical support soon, which means companies will no longer have access to security patches and bug fixes. Support for Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 ends in 2020 and support for Windows CE7 ends in 2021.

“Most rugged devices using Legacy Windows are older and include outdated technical capabilities, i.e., old crypto, slower Wi-Fi,” according to a white paper on the future of mobile computing operating systems from SOTI Inc. “However, these devices often deliver features perfectly suited to their use case, i.e., barcode scanners and removable batteries. . . . These purpose-built devices deliver a capable, customizable platform for device and data security.” SOTI says many hardware OEMs have committed to support Microsoft operating systems beyond their end-of-service dates, which means “you can continue to use Windows CE 6.0 for some time, or you can side-grade to Windows Embedded Compact 7.0 or Windows Embedded Compact 2013.”

All this is happening while 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technology are advancing but not yet proven. This leaves users wondering if 4G devices with modern operating systems are a good investment. Will 5G make them obsolete as soon as they’re bought? Not likely, Willins says. Improvements coming with Wi-Fi 6 will give that protocol many of the same attributes as 5G cellular technology. Also, “3G got introduced roughly around 1998. So, we’re talking, 20 to 21 years before it really started getting decommissioned. If we extrapolate that onto 4G, which started roughly in 2010, a 20-year lifespan means decommissioning in the 2030 time frame,” he says. “So, with respect to those customers who are concerned about future proofing, we’re quite confident 4G is not going away anytime soon,” he says.

What do you think? Is 4G enough for 2020 and beyond? Mobile computing and Industrial Internet of Things communications are two things that 5G wireless technology is supposed to make exponentially better. How soon are you planning for that to happen? Let me know: rbassett@isa.org.

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About The Authors

Renee Bassett is chief editor for InTech magazine and Automation.com, and publications contributing editor for ISA. Bassett is an experienced writer, editor, and consultant for industrial automation, engineering, information technology, and infrastructure topics. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism and English from Indiana University, Bloomington, and is based in Nashville.