Rugged Mobile Computing Deserves Another Look
Lower prices and new tablet PC form factors are raising eyebrows in the ruggedized mobile computing industry.
Do you still think customers such as gas and oil well field technicians are the only ones who need ruggedized computers? Do you think these types of units are overkill for most of your clients? If you answered yes to the first question - you're wrong. You may be right, though, in saying a ruggedized unit is not appropriate for many of your clients, but that could be changing.
Ruggedized notebooks, which are often categorized into semi-rugged, rugged, and ultra-rugged, are starting to pop up in all sorts of vertical markets. Of course, field service applications are the logical first target for these types of units. Today, everyone from a soldier on a battlefield to an elevator repairman uses a ruggedized laptop. But, as Antonio Lara, VP of North American sales for DAP Technologies (Quebec City), says, "As technology moves forward and products in the mobile market become better adapted to the demands of mobile workers, the definition of field service will come into question. We will all be 'field working' at some point in time."
Lara makes a good point. How many of your customers don't wear a hard hat to work but use a laptop that could be exposed to inclement weather or dropped on something other than a carpeted floor? "More white-collar users will continue to embrace ruggedization," says Sheila O'Neil, director of channel sales at Panasonic Computer Solutions (Seacaucus, NJ). "Ruggedized platforms will be used more commonly for mainstream software applications. In addition, wireless broadband access will help increase sales of ruggedized notebooks due to Intel's Centrino technology and the increase in nationwide hot spots."
Gartner (Stamford, CT) Analyst George Shiffler is more cautious about the effects of Centrino. He says since Centrino is targeted for enterprises, which usually take at least three to six months to evaluate new technologies, the technology's effect on notebook sales won't be felt for awhile.
But wireless connectivity isn't the only feature driving sales of ruggedized notebooks into nontraditional markets. As with any PC-related technology, price is the real catalyst.
Can Your Customers Afford Ruggedized PCs?
If you know anything about the ruggedized computing market, you know prices have been falling for the past few years. But, have they fallen enough for your customers to be willing to shell out some extra cash for these hardy units? Dale Szymborski, president of Kontron Mobile Computing, Inc. (Eden Prairie, MN) points out that standard PC component costs have come down. However, features such as wireless and GPS (global positioning system) are keeping ruggedized PC system prices from lowering as fast as component prices.
Matt Gerber, VP of worldwide marketing and business development for Itronix Corp. (Spokane, WA) says compared to standard laptops, his company's semi-rugged units cost about $500 more, its rugged products cost about $1,000 more, and its ultra-rugged products can cost up to $2,000 more. "It wasn't long ago that I remember the list price for an Itronix X-C 6250 notebook powered by a 25 Mhz 486 processor was almost $7,000," Gerber recalls. "Today, an Itronix GoBookII PIV with a 1.7 GHz processor can be purchased for $4,495."
Ruggedized Tablets Have Arrived
The newest addition to the PC family - and the ruggedized PC family - is the tablet PC, which was designed as a pen-based mobile device for vertical markets such as healthcare. Meant to be cradled in your arm, these units weigh between three and four pounds and come with (convertibles) and without (slates) keyboards. "Tablets are especially useful for workers who need to use an application while moving, yet also need lots of processing power," Gerber says. "A good example is enabling an insurance adjuster to complete a claim while walking around a customer's property."
Gartner's Shiffler says this form factor (only in existence since November 2002) garnered about 1% of the total mobile PC shipments in the first quarter of 2003.
Despite those small sales figures, it's not surprising almost all ruggedized PC vendors released a tablet version in 2003. After all, a ruggedized tablet PC will last longer in any environment where a standard tablet PC is deployed.
O'Neil says ruggedized tablets cost about 20% more than nonruggedized notebooks or tablets. "You really see the difference in the cost when you start adding features such as integrated wireless, backlit keyboards, and GPS," she explains.
Features Alone Won't Make The Sale
Lara expects ruggedized tablets to replace many subnotebooks, luggable computers, and notebooks used in outdoor and vehicle-mounted applications. In addition to smaller size and weight, he says Windows CE functionality is one of the key reasons users will make the shift to ruggedized tablet PCs. "We see field service, field inspection, and logistics [short/long haul] as the main target markets for these products," Lara says.
In addition to degree of ruggedness, other tablet PC features VARs should evaluate include handwriting recognition and a unit's touch screen. "We have found many companies want to use a tablet PC, but when they test it outside, the screen is not bright enough," O'Neil explains. "VARs should test screens like transflective SVGA [super video graphics array] LCDs for outdoor readability."
All of the ruggedized computing vendors interviewed had one common message to VARs selling this technology: understand your customers' needs. Although basic, this advice is especially pertinent when prices can differ so dramatically between levels of ruggedness.
"Solution-in-a-box products in a rugged environment are hardly ever successful," states Lara. "A better understanding of a customer's business process allows a VAR to become a business partner with that customer, providing solutions to business problems rather than just recommending the best hardware available."