The Rise Of Rugged Mobile Computing
$138 million ProSys Information Systems plans to exceed $5 million in mobile computing sales by targeting the telco and utilities markets.
Forget about PDAs (personal digital assistants) and handheld computers. At ProSys Information Systems (Norcross, GA), mobile computing means ruggedized laptops. "We try to focus on one type of product in a technology and cater to the markets specific to that product," explains Bruce Keenan, corporate secretary and treasurer at the $138 million VAR. "Last year we earned $5 million in sales from mobile computing solutions. We expect at least that much this year, especially with the increased business we are finding in the telecommunications [telco] and utilities markets."
Market Growth To Continue
According to a recent study from research firm Venture Development Corp. (VDC) (Natick, MA) titled "The Global Markets For Rugged Mobile Computers, Volume 1: Rugged Mobile Computer Products," the worldwide rugged mobile computer market is expected to grow 10.2% annually through 2007. The reasons cited for this growth - higher employee productivity and improved customer service levels - shouldn't be surprising. However, in these trying economic times, it is encouraging to see end users finally willing to spend a little more for a ruggedized laptop that will last longer than a cheaper consumer model. The study also lists the field service (including telco) and utilities markets among the top five industries/sectors purchasing larger, rugged mobile computing products (e.g. notebook, on-board/fixed vehicle, tablet, luggable/lunchbox, and sub-notebook).
Rugged Laptop Features Your Customers Want
"Usually, utility and telco customers already have experienced the pain of using non-ruggedized laptops for field personnel," states Michelle Clery, president of ProSys. "The non-ruggedized devices have high failure rates [e.g. 40% compared to 5% for ruggedized], are hard to view in direct sunlight, and don't have touch screens - which field service personnel want."
As an example, Clery explained two pilot projects ProSys completed for a telco customer. The client needed mobile computing devices that would connect to an 802.11b wireless LAN (WLAN) and be used for documenting progress and quality control on cellular phone assembly lines. The devices needed to withstand a hot and dusty environment and tolerate occasional bumps or drops. ProSys sold the company 12 Panasonic Computer Solutions (Secaucus, NJ) Toughbook 28s (see sidebar at left) for this project. An additional 50 Toughbook 28s were sold for a second pilot project involving field technicians using the laptops for conducting cell tower inspections.
Users surveyed for the VDC study indicated the following features are most often considered when selecting a larger form factor, rugged mobile computer:
- Water/dust resistance (including keyboards)
- Ruggedness/durability (measured by drop specifications)
- Shock/vibration resistance
- Extreme heat/cold resistance
- Daylight readable displays
Other selection criteria cited included availability/delivery of product and parts, warranty, and reputation of vendor. Clery adds that utility and telco companies want laptops with integrated bar code scanners (e.g. for meter readers), GPS (global positioning system) capabilities, and in-vehicle mounts (see sidebar on page 86).