|Issue:||Europe I 2014|
|Topic:||True mobility trend favours rugged mobile computers|
Jerker Hellström is the founder and CEO of Handheld, a fast-growing manufacturer of rugged mobile computers, PDAs and smartphones. He is a pioneer and industry veteran in the mobile rugged computer industry. He has more than 25 years of experience in both entrepreneurial and managerial positions, in roles that involveddeveloping, designing, manufacturing and marketing rugged computers globally.
Jerker´s educational background is in engineering and computer science.
Mobile manufacturers are launching smartphones and other mobile devices that are rugged, or rather ‘ruggedish’. Their efforts are mainly focused on water-proof and dust-proof devices. The reason for growing interest in ruggedisation is the increased mobility, which intensifies the chance of device failure as a result of dropping it, shuttering the screen, or using it in the rain. However, these ruggedish devices do not comply with the strict industrial sandard, they cannot withstand extreme temperatures or shocks and cannot provide long term support. Therefore, outdoor workers will still require truely rugged equipment.
Many large mobile phone and computer makers are scrambling to make their devices more rugged, not only for field workers but also for the mass consumer market. For instance, it has been hard to not notice Sony’s strong promotion for its waterproof Xperia Z model, or Samsung’s recent launch of the waterproof and dustproof Galaxy X4 Active. Even your trusted and delicate iPhone can become water-resistant with one of the increasingly popular smartphone cases.
Before we jump to the conclusion that rugged laptops, tablets and smartphones have become mainstream, let me point out that most smartphones and mobile computers that are being sold are still not rugged in any aspect. Drop your ordinary smartphone in the water, or anywhere else for that matter, and you will most likely end up with a cracked display and a trip to the nearest phone shop for a new phone.
More importantly, the waterproof devices that cell phone makers launch are not truly rugged or ruggedized. Let us call them ‘ruggedish’. They might be waterproof but lack other aspects of ruggedness, like the ability to function well in low or high temperatures.
The definition of ruggedness
To be ;ruggedised’, the devices should have passed some of the MIL-STD tests, i. e. the American military standard for equipment. The 24 laboratory test methods ensure that the equipment can handle low pressure at high altitudes; exposure to high and low temperatures plus temperature shocks; rain; humidity; sand and dust exposure; leakage; shock and vibration. They must be highly rated on the ingress protection (IP) scale for protection against dust and liquids. The ratings are displayed as a two digit number. The first digit reflects the level of protection against dust and the second digit reflects the level of protection against liquids (water).
Many of the new ruggedish smartphones launched by the big cell phone makers have high IP ratings, but seldom as high as the truly rugged smartphones offered out by traditional rugged computer makers. Hardly any of them are tested for 810G standards, so they do not handle extreme temperatures, drops or vibrations very well. They might be water resistant but are not shock resistant, you might say. Truly rugged devices meet other requirements for outdoor enterprise use. Hit sunlight readability and the fact that enterprises want a consistent platform for their deployments (consumer devices change form factor/OS/specs every six months). Rugged manufacturers are committed to offering devices that are consistent to deploy.
Truly rugged computers have become much more sophisticated and advanced in the last few years. They now have faster processors to offer better and broader use, and the ability to bring desktop functionality out into the field. Their batteries can work for eight hours on a single charge – a full working day. They may work on any choice of wireless frequency anywhere in the world. They have high quality cameras that allows in field image capture.
True mobility for the first time in history
What are the reasons for this new ruggedish trend? I think that basically it comes down to the huge success of the smartphones and of mobility in general. People carry their smartphones or tablets everywhere, are constantly online, and want their devices to work when they are jogging in the rain or dancing in a crowded bar. They also keep dropping them. The cracked display is a common sight these days. Bigger smartphones, or phablets, are harder to slide into your pocket or purse and are more likely to end up on the floor. So basically, it comes down to consumer demand, and the main driver of ruggedish devices is true mobility. We are presently going through a real, radical shift in the way in which people work and play and use computers. It is about true mobility, for the first time in history.
With increasing availability and affordability of wireless broadband, people are no longer confined to the traditional office or home environment. Soon we will all be connected, everywhere and always. Mobile operators are expanding networks and increasing capacity to handle the explosion of data traffic stemming from the increasing use of smartphones (that are in reality more computers than phones).
Working from home or closer to the customers can have several positive effects: it may make staff more content and also more productive. It may make the organization slimmer by reducing the need for office space. The society as a whole may reap great environmental rewards if this newly found true mobility leads to fewer trips by car, bus, train or plane to and from the office.
Traditionally, rugged computers have been used by field workers operating in tough and ‘naturally mobile’ environments such as logistics, geomatics, forestry, public transportation, construction, mining, public safety and military. But a strong parallel trend is that even ‘ordinary’ office workers are now also starting to use rugged computers for a life ‘on the go’ to avoid having to replace commercial laptops or handheld devices or even smartphones so often. Many blue collar workers, like garbage collectors and train staff, have also started using rugged computers and handheld devices to make their work more effective and productive.
Non-professional consumers – the main target market for cell phone makers offering ruggedish smartphones – also benefit from this new true mobility and demand connectivity anytime and anywhere, for access to the Internet, their emails and all their apps. This coincides with the ‘blurring’ of the boundaries between the workplace and the private space, with people being self-employed, project-employed or simply ‘good’ employees who are accessible to their employers all the time – often on their own devices.
Rugged is cool
Rugged mobile computers have also become much lighter and have much better functionality overall, including better displays and improved ergonomic design – all contributing to an improved user experience. New screen technology provides spectacular screen clarity and brightness in any outdoor condition, even direct sunlight.
They also look better – it has become cool to own a rugged computer (also because many famous athletes and adventurers use them). Design and functionality are two strong reasons why the rugged computer segment is growing faster than other computer segments.
So the traditional truly rugged segment of the mobile computer and smartphone market is growing and becoming more attractive to the mass market, and the mass producers of smartphones are manufacturing more ruggedish devices. We have a convergence here. Where will it leave the often small specialized rugged computer manufacturers?
Traditional rugged computer makers are best equipped to supply truly rugged smartphones and tablets. Traditional truly rugged mobile computer manufacturers, companies like Advantech, Trimble and Handheld, have for decades been churning out truly rugged devices. Ruggedness is ‘in their DNA’, as they often claim. Are the large smartphone manufacturers now invading their domain?
I think not. On the contrary, I think that a new focus on consumers’ need for durable products will benefit the rugged mobile computer industry since they are best equipped to make truly rugged devices. The professional field worker will stick with the products from the specialist rugged mobile computer makers simply because the products are so much better – a ruggedish smartphone will not be able to handle the tough working environments that field workers experience.
For field professionals and their employers, there is also the question about reliability and the cost of downtime. They simply cannot afford to lose valuable productive time because of hardware malfunctions. If a rugged mobile computer is business critical, they will not choose a ruggedish computer.
Other reasons why the traditional rugged computer makers still have a strong position:
• It is very difficult to design and manufacture rugged mobile computers. It takes a lot of competence and experience that is not easy to acquire.
• Life cycle management: the rugged computer makers have a longer perspective on the products and often offer five-year support and service plans. Their focus is for the products to last for many years, regardless of fashion.
• The rugged computer makers choose components with long life cycles, and the components are designed for industrial use (which increases performance and longevity).
• There is an attractive ecosystem of accessories – vehicle cradles, chargers, docks, carry cases etc, many from independent suppliers.
• The rugged computer makers have an existing sales and marketing network to distribute rugged mobile computers to the desired target groups.
• The rugged computer makers have existing and comprehensive service and support plans, which enable customers to speedily and cost-efficiently repair damaged smartphones and computers for several years after the purchase.
In conclusion: the trend towards more rugged computers is good for everyone. There is definitely room for the traditional cell phone manufacturers to offer more durable products the mass market. But the truly specialized rugged computer makers will still be best equipped to supply truly rugged computers to everyone.