By Stephanie N. Mehta
October 28, 2009

Device testing needs to drastically improve or carriers and manufacturers face big risks to their reputations.

By Abhijit Kabra, senior executive, Accenture

Cell phones have come a long way in the last five years: We can surf the web, listen to music, watch TV, and make payments on our phones. So why is the process of testing these devices stuck in the 1990s?

Leading mobile handset makers around the world spend millions of dollars testing these products from the onset of product development until they deliver them to market.  Yet according to a new Accenture survey of executives from the electronics and high-tech industries, 88 percent of respondents revealed that they do not do a good job of testing these handsets.

It’s disappointing and surprising that so many manufacturers are lax in their testing approaches. Testing may seem like a straightforward exercise. But without stringent testing of these phones, the entire mobile ecosystem—from manufacturers to wireless carriers to retailers—risk putting out poor quality products that dissatisfy consumers, lower sales, and damage corporate brands.

Given this predicament, manufacturers are under mounting pressure to revamp their testing methods. And they should, particularly during these tough economic times when cost savings and process improvements are so crucial.

The goal to revamp should be systemic, aimed at creating a new, well-coordinated and compre­hensive testing strategy—the opposite of a piecemeal and incomplete approach. This new, more consistent and industrialized method, will reduce product development costs, deliver expected quality levels faster, and defend brand reputations.

It’s a bold ambition, because as cell phones have become more complex so has testing. And because wireless phone makers and service providers haven’t looked closely enough at the way they test the phones, the process is fragmented, disorganized and subject to rising costs directly proportional to the phone volumes manufactured.

New features + global rollouts = more headaches

Plus, cell phones are constantly getting filled with new and more applications and features, making them no longer simply a talk and text device. They now are amounting to a complex, full-fledged entertainment, financial services, Internet device and enterprise mobility center. With sophistication come complications.

Geographic trends are another ongoing complication. In the past, manufacturers may have had the luxury of phased introductions of new mobile handsets region by region. Now they are expected to launch them simultaneously worldwide—mandating a global launch strategy. Compounding this problem, manufacturers may not be able to identify performance failures until after the products hit the market.  Nor do they have, as global product launches draw near, the global product testing capabilities necessary to productively apply these solutions across geographies.

The new, highly coordinated approach manufacturers should start using involves optimal balancing and maximizing efficiencies of remote testing, off-shoring, simulation and automation.

How do these categories work?

  • In a remote testing scenario, an engineer in India, for example, sits at his computer and tests a cell phone physically located in, for example, London on a London-based wireless network. The tester can do this by accessing the handset over the Internet.
  • In the case of off-shore testing, the same engineer conducts testing of features that are not dependent on the network. For instance, testing of the world clock does not need network connectivity and hence can be tested in an off-shore location in India.
  • Automation testing is performed by a tool without any manual intervention. This is useful when a large number of test cases are to be tested repetitively such as adding thousands of addresses in the cell phone address book. In such cases the tester initiates the automated testing by the end of the day before going home and the tool conducts the testing overnight. The tester can simply look at the test report the next morning when he returns to the office.
  • In simulation testing the same engineer is testing the handset by connecting it to a network simulator rather than the actual wireless live network. This allows the tester to conduct the testing in a controlled lab environment, making the debugging and bug fixing process much faster.

Individually these types of testing techniques have been around for several years. What’s new—and increasingly vital—is making sure that the performance of all four testing approaches are maximized, so that the sum truly is greater than the parts. The key differentiator of this new approach is that it enables device manufacturers and wireless operators to develop testing strategy optimized for their specific requirements, thereby delivering cost and product delivery benefits not achieved before.

Taking a page from the auto industry?

Put another way, this new approach is about squeezing the lemon fully, as opposed to only partially–leveraging all four techniques. Using this approach will help a tester of cell phones to execute more test cases faster and on multiple handsets simultaneously, which will reduce the risks of leaving product defects unfixed.  By using this coordinated approach, product development and validation organizations can:

  • cut overall testing costs by as much as 30 to 50 percent;
  • accelerate product deliveries to market by as much as 20 percent; and,
  • increase the volume of new product release testing by as much as 25 percent.

One real-world example of a company that has embraced this new approach operates in the automotive industry. The company had a goal of testing its Bluetooth-enabled cars with commercially available Bluetooth cell phones. Before bringing the cars to market, they wanted to test the thousands of different models prevalent worldwide that were intended for use in the cars. It used to be that they had to test each cell phone in person, in each geographic location and within the local wireless networks. All this was repetitive, costly, inefficient and delayed the deliveries of cars to market.

Using this new approach, the company reduced product development costs, accelerated product deliveries, and increased the number of products tested within a given time period. One key was simulating all the wireless networks involved within one remote testing site.

The different market pressures and dynamics in the wireless industry are intense. This poor testing situation is one of the most serious and potentially opportunistic. Testing approaches have not evolved to keep pace with the increased complexity and quality control requirements. For those companies that decide they want to ensure better quality and do it less expensively, faster, and more efficiently, using the collective and cumulative benefits of remote testing, off shoring, simulation and automation will yield differentiating results.

Kabra is a senior executive leading Accenture’s embedded software business and technology initiatives. Kabra can be reached at Accenture is releasing a report on mobile handset testing this week at the Symbian Exchange and Exposition in London.

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