Ruggedised PDAs embrace larger screens and Android

Bigger screens and easy-to-manage Android systems fuel growth in the ruggedised PDA, scanner and smartphone market, opening up new verticals beyond logistics operations, such as health. Kate O’Flaherty reports

Ruggedised PDAs embrace larger screens and Android

The small format ruggedised PDA and smartphone market is evolving at a quicker pace than ever before, with Android increasingly emerging as an alternative to Windows.

The space is dominated by the US’s Motorola Solutions, but smaller players are gaining ground. Like the large format ruggedised devices market, complexity is increasing due to the growth of consumer devices.

Meanwhile, Android is making a significant impact in the small devices market. ‘Everything traditionally has been Windows-based and all of our devices are for Windows Embedded Handheld’, says Intermec UK product manager, Jo Brookes. 

‘But Windows 8 Embedded Handheld is not available yet: that starts to bring into question where people go in the future. Should they stick with Windows or go elsewhere?’ 

And up until quite recently, PDA vendors did not consider Android’s Ice Cream Sandwich to be an enterprise grade platform because it lacked security, version control, and device management capabilities. 

But this has changed, says Brookes. In fact, smaller ruggedised devices are moving to Android faster than their larger counterparts, with many considering the platform as a replacement for Windows.

Even so, Intermec is still working with Microsoft and other providers on Windows Embedded 8, which is likely to come out next year requiring new devices. ‘The adoption of that will tend to see how people go and how big a shift there is to Android,’ says Brookes.

Meanwhile, PDA manufacturer Toughshield is ‘totally Android’ and this is fuelling the firm’s move into tablets, the firm’s director of strategic planning Mark Davis says. But he adds: ‘When you get to 10-inch tablet it’s Windows 8 that’s more prevalent so we need to consider that. 

‘The market has been in turmoil as you have to change hardware and software. Customers want to embrace consumerisation, but with an enterprise class operating system, security and service - with a minimum three year lifecycle.’

Yet Davis acknowledges Android’s ability to provide a lower cost, pointing out that Toughshield is planning a consumer grade ruggedised device for trade workers, for launch next year. ‘It’s for the contract worker or builder, as it has wet finger operation, with the consumer look and feel,’ he says.

These consumer form factors are also driving demand for bigger screens, Davis says, adding that some of his customers are considering the phone-tablet hybrids dubbed “phablets”.

There is a move towards larger screen devices, agrees Brookes, but consumer form factors are causing issues with durability and support. ‘Customers are starting to look at smartphones as an alternative and what they are finding is, not only are there issues with the application, an application that runs today might not run tomorrow as you don’t have that guaranteed support on a smartphone as a rugged device.’

Consumer v ruggedized

This means the total cost of ownership (TCO) might be more. ‘It spends so much time in the repair shop, the worker can’t do their job,’ says Brookes. It can also mean devices need replacing: Intermec has seen up to 60% of consumer-type PDAs replaced in one year. 

This is a big issue in the PDA market, agrees Steve Northcott, senior marketing solutions manager at Motorola Solutions. ‘We have some customers who look at consumer devices and upfront they are cheaper, but the TCO is higher,’ he says.

‘Do you need an extra battery to make it last full shift? What about if you drop the phone? Increasingly, mobile computing devices are becoming part of peoples’ jobs, but you might not make a customer meeting in time - so it can cost the business.’

Northcott says Motorola’s newly launched TC55 enterprise smartphone boasts ‘the best of both worlds’. ‘It has the usability of a consumer smartphone, it is based on Android Jellybean - and has an integrated scanner,’ he says. 

Meanwhile, Intermec has also introduced a new product to address the move towards consumerisation. The CN51 is a PDA that Brookes says ‘has all the ruggedness of a normal device’, but with a 4-inch screen like a smartphone, on Windows Embedded Handheld or Android.

Despite the need for consumer style screens, users need devices that will last out on the field. As such, lifecycle reputation is integral to Motorola; users are comfortable looking at specifications they have used before, says Northcott. 

To enhance security, Motorola has also launched extensions for Android devices to make the OS suitable for enterprise use. ‘It will provide additional security on top of standard enterprise so you can white or blacklist apps and also wipe a phone clean,’ says Northcott.

Motorola also offers after-sell support including technical support and SLAs about repair turnaround. ‘It’s important to get a phone that will last a long time in the field, says Northcott. ‘We do try to go above and beyond so when customers buy a product they will buy again.’

Scanners are seeing an increasing number of uses and already established verticals are diversifying. For example, says Northcott, field workers can use PDAs for virtual inventory in the back of a van. 

‘The office knows what parts I’ve got and it’s more likely I can fix it first time,’ he says, adding: ‘From a delivery point of view you might be scanning parcels in and out of the van: if this is saving a few seconds with an integrated scanner, then that becomes important for the productivity of field delivery.’

Health market

Ruggedised PDAs are used in transportation and logistics and costal areas as well as within distribution centres. They are also seeing growth in healthcare, for patient and medication tracking and making sure pharmaceuticals are genuine batches, through to asset tracking of high value medical equipment.

Northcott says there are ‘big opportunities’ in field and home health. ‘If you are a community nurse you probably have a list of a number of patients that you are visiting: if in addition there is an emergency visit you can adapt your schedule in real time,’ he says.

Toughshield is seeing increasing demand in security and emergency services. The firm has built in an SOS button, so security workers can use devices as a walkie talkie.

Meanwhile, 4G is gaining ground as it allows a trade worker to download a manual or video online. ‘At the higher end, the scan intensive ops such as postal and parcel want to sell more services because of e-substitution and mail volumes eroding,’ Davis says. ‘As you sign on screen for your post you might see a video playing.’

It is these technologies, along with the entry of Android, which will have a disruptive impact on the market. As many firms abandon Windows, it is likely the ruggedised PDA space will see a seismic shift.

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