The right mobile rugged computing tools for the job

Device manufacturers say consumerisation is both the biggest single challenge and the biggest benefit to the rugged market. It is making workers more educated about the devices they require in their day-to-day jobs, but at the same time, it can lead to hardware in the field that is not fit for purpose.

One benefit of consumerisation is that it opens the door for users to be involved in the purchasing decision, ultimately improving adoption in the long run. With this in mind, companies are increasingly seeking employees’ opinions before buying new devices, according to Jonathan Tucker, senior product marketing manager at Panasonic.

Previously, this decision was nearly always made by IT departments. Now, Tucker says, some customers are changing their deployment and device strategies to involve end users in hardware selection, trials and pilots.

The rugged devices industry is also aiming to make hardware thinner and lighter to appeal to technology-savvy field workers. As part of this, according to Chris Bye, president of Getac UK, there has to be a balance between consumer grade usability and durability.

‘You have to square off weight, screen size and battery life,’ he explains. ‘If you make the screen too thin, it won’t last more than a couple of hours. Everyone wants wireless connectivity, with functions such as NFC, but it also needs to be able to scan a barcode.’

According to Bye, consumerisation is also leading the rugged sector to become very vertical specific. ‘Before, it covered entire industries, but now we work with specific use cases to see where the pain points are.’

Operating systems

As the drive towards consumerisation continues, Android operating systems are being used on an increasing number of devices. This is in addition to the popularity of Windows 10 with some firms.

Thomas Löfblad, VP of sales, Handheld Group, says Android is seeing ‘exponential growth’. In response to this, Handheld this year launched a dedicated Android platform. ‘The Android curiosity was there last year and software developers and the community were really starting to look at that,’ Löfblad says.

Now, the usability of Android is a driver both as a development tool and a software tool, he says. ‘Also, Microsoft has been late with Windows Mobile 10. From our point of view as a hardware provider, it’s not clear which processing platforms will be supported by Windows 10.’

Meanwhile, in a market gearing towards touch screens, there has been some push back, with customers asking for a keyboard – especially from sectors where field workers wear gloves. Bye explains: ‘Some workers want to be able to input data using an onscreen keyboard: a traditional clamshell works very well for them.’

With this in mind, and to appeal to all use cases, Getac offers the convertible V110 and tablet F110. Bye says: ‘Customers like having a choice. Some users might want to use the tablet and some the notepad – and you can choose. One size doesn’t fit all.’

Tucker says Panasonic is still seeing strong demand in the notebook market as workers continue to demand keyboards. He adds that Panasonic has launched a device with a keyboard as well as a 2-in-1 in detachable – which he says is ‘a first in rugged’.

Panasonic, which claims to be number one in both the tablet and notebook markets, has also made an entrance in the handheld space. The handheld sector can be lucrative, Tucker points out: some postal companies require deployments of more than 50,000 devices, for example.

Extending the life cycle

In a market so affected by consumerisation, it might come as a surprise that life cycles remain lengthy in many cases. According to Cameron Roche, analyst at VDC Research, rugged device life cycles remain in the six-year range.

According to Andy McBain, head of regional product management at Zebra Technologies, life cycles can even stretch up to 15 years in some sectors. ‘One of the longest is warehouse and logistics because it’s all back operation – many systems haven’t been touched for years. It’s as companies change their back end systems and need a different user client that these life cycles will start to reduce.’

Rugged market sees notebooks hit hardest 

According to VDC Research, the total rugged mobile hardware market grossed $4bn and shipped more than 4.1 million units worldwide in 2015. The analyst says the rugged notebook space was hit hardest of all form factors when comparing year-end totals from 2014 to 2015.

All regions witnessed between 15% and 20% market contraction when comparing 2014 year-end total revenues to 2015, VDC says. However, it adds that 2016 should see improvements in this area due to vendors retooling channels, sales strategies, and marketing over the later half 2015.

UK public safety looking for the right 4G devices on Emergency Services Network

Rugged hardware will be key to the UK’s Emergency Services Network (ESN), despite the push towards consumer grade 4G devices. The ESN – which will see the emergency services migrate from the current Airwave TETRA two-way radio network to EE’s 4G network – is due for completion in 2020.

LTE technology is already being used in police and ambulance radios to provide constant connectivity. Hubert Da Costa, VP EMEA at Cradlepoint, says: ‘It is reliable, cost-effective and flexible for public safety.’

According to Cameron Roche, research analyst at VDC, some use cases will fundamentally require a ruggedised device. ‘One device type, which is specifically on the rise, especially in law enforcement, is the body-worn camera. VDC expects body-worn cameras to grow by about 30% over the next five years.’

Traditional TETRA radios are primarily designed for voice, but they are all robust, rugged devices. But moving to LTE brings with it access to broadband data, which generally requires a larger display screen. But finding the right devices for each of the emergency services, and indeed, the right ones to support very different roles within each of them, is proving a little tricky.

So what types of form factor are the emergency services likely to be using when the transition to EE’s 4G ESN system takes place? The police are looking at an everyday smartphone for the ‘bobby on the beat’ and Android devices are popular. Bye explains: ‘It’s about smaller apps and convenience.’

Yet he adds: ‘If you talk to the police, there are things you can’t do with regular smartphones, such as checking a person’s identity. Currently, they have to do that by calling the station – but if you could incorporate a fingerprint scanner, that could be useful.’ In healthcare, says Bye, 10 inches is the ‘magic size’.

Handheld, which serves emergency services particularly in the Swedish market, sees tablets as a big requirement in healthcare. ‘They need a device that is rugged, LTE and GPS enabled, and a smart solution for installing in vehicles,’ Löfblad says.

Meanwhile, fire and rescue services need a lot more screen real estate, says Bye. ‘If you are looking at plans of a building, you need big screens and the vehicle to mount the device in is larger too.’

The 2020 deadline is only four years off. In the meantime, the question is whether TETRA and LTE dual devices are a worthwhile investment. Tucker says: ‘In 2020, old networks will be phased out and the move to 5G will happen. We do often have the conversation around the possibility of integrating TETRA into devices, but availability and bandwidth are issues. I think people are now reevaluating where they stand.’

Image Credit: GokGak /

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.