The ruggedised devices market is undergoing a transformation, fuelled by consumerisation, new technologies and the arrival of alternative operating systems.
Despite this evolution, growth still continues in the traditional space. According to analysts, all rugged products are showing consistent growth, with tablets increasing at a compound annual rate of between 7% and 9%, and traditional notebooks at a more modest 5%.
Germany leads the ruggedised devices market in Europe, boosted by demand from the industrial and automotive sectors. The UK is stronger in military and utilities, with the large format sector thought to be worth between £160m and £180m across all sectors in the UK.
The market is changing ‘quite dramatically’, according to Peter Molyneux, president of Getac UK. ‘The dynamics of that are resulting in a different way customers buy products; which products they buy; and how they use the technology,’ he says.
In fact, today’s new technology is becoming as significant as the first mobile revolution, which saw laptops replacing paper, says Panasonic European product marketing manager, Jon Tucker. ‘I see that happening again 12 years later with the tablet revolution,’ he says.
According to Tucker, Panasonic previously had 29% share in the rugged tablet market, but he says this has risen to 42%, with the company aiming for 50% by 2015.
The move towards consumer form factors is taking place because of price points, Tucker says, with consumer tablets offering a low price compared with Windows 8 ruggedised tablets. ‘Consumerisation is happening everywhere,’ says Tucker. ‘Everyone you know has a tablet or smartphone and expects the business to do that. It has caught the business world out to be honest.’
At the same time, an increasing number of players are also adding choice to the market. Globally, the large format device sector is dominated by Panasonic. The firm previously held a 60% market share, but experts estimate that this has been eroded over the last two years, to around 50%, as newer entrants such as Getac and Handheld drive competition.
As demand increases, pricing is coming down substantially. Molyneux cites the example of a utility in Europe whose previous mobility consisted of a coverable rugged notebook in the back of a vehicle, with a rugged display in the front.
‘That utility paid €5,000 per vehicle five years ago, but is now looking at a 7-inch tablet to be clipped in to the front of the vehicle for five years, running Android. He developed the apps himself and he thinks he can do all of that for €1,500,’ Molyneux says.
Form and function
The average selling point is at least 30% cheaper for tablets, Molyneux says, making them an attractive option for businesses looking to cut costs. But he points out that thermal management is often overlooked as tablets embrace consumer form factors.
‘Because they are thin and light you need to manage the temperature, otherwise the processor will throttle,’ he says, adding: ‘The trend in the consumer market is clear; you need the functionality as well as the form factor. Requirements from the market are thinner and lighter, but it has to be rugged: that has been a design challenge.’
But as thinner and lighter devices appear, vendors are finding it tough to convince customers to purchase what are often more expensive ruggedised designs. ‘People in the rugged market don’t want old technology, they don’t want clunky interfaces; they want what they get at home,’ Molyneux says. ‘Speed, efficiency and familiarity all comes into it. Screens are bright and easy to use, that’s what businesses want. It’s rugged and latest technology.’
As such, vendors are facing the challenge of pushing total cost of ownership (TCO) versus buying cheaper consumer devices. ‘It’s about TCO,’ Tucker says. ‘The ruggedised form factors are more expensive, but over a period of five years they will be cheaper. If you have huge IT departments looking at consumer tablets, it costs more.’
To resolve this issue, Panasonic pushes its convertible devices that aim to give users the best of both worlds. Keyboards are essential for some sectors and applications – and problems – can arise when a user wants to type on a tablet, for example, Tucker says. Meanwhile, the ‘holy grail’ is the ‘longest battery life you can get,’ he adds.
As part of the consumer transition, the Android operating system (OS) - a platform once considered insecure - is appearing on an increasing number of rugged smartphones and tablets. This growth began after Android’s latest iteration, which allows mobile device management (MDM), propelling the Google OS to eat into a once Windows-dominated market.
Android’s growing popularity is down to its low cost and time to deployment, says Molyneux. ‘Cost is coming out a great deal - businesses are under pressure,’ he says. ‘If you can reduce that [Microsoft] licensing fee, then you are going to do it.’
Getac is confident of the OS’ success and is working on an Android government-approved product, which will be launched in three to six months.
Android’s security features are numerous, says Molyneux. ‘You get secure log in, you get the ability to white list applications; businesses are getting their own dedicated app sites and pushing apps onto units. You can disable the ability to connect to Wi-Fi or you can have partition for personal and business.’
Even so, there is still a worry among some users, Tucker points out, adding that the OS of choice among his customers is usually Windows. ‘People have the skill set in house and its security features are mature,’ he says.
Although four out of five of Panasonic’s customers are still Windows based, Tucker thinks that will change. ‘We have committed to an Android product roadmap, but we are a strategic partner of Microsoft and very committed to Windows,’ he says.
Meanwhile, the emergence of tablets means product lifecycle in the ruggedised devices space is changing. Traditional notepads have a four to five year lifecycle, but consumerisation is moving that down to two to three years.
This is posing a challenge: to deploy new devices out into the field, it can take one and a half years, says Tucker. ‘There is pressure on it,’ he says.
This also puts pressure on aftercare. Panasonic offers service and warranty itself and has a service centre in Cardiff. ‘We do that because a lot of the devices have special features, even though they are commercial and off the shelf, and people need to be kept working,’ says Tucker.
Despite this challenge, ruggedised devices are seeing a growing number of applications, with new verticals constantly emerging. Getac sees opportunity within government, military, oil and gas, field service and manufacturing.
Meanwhile, Panasonic’s customer base includes automotive - where diagnostics plug into a tablet and find out what’s wrong with the car - as well as military, utilities and telecoms.
Newer markets include health and areas of transportation such as rail and aviation. Tucker cites the example of airline EasyJet, where the pilots use electronic flight bags instead of paper. ‘The pilot takes on paper documents on how to fly the plane and now they have electronic flight bags,’ says Tucker.
Ruggedised devices are also used in maintenance repair and overhaul when walking around the aircraft and ticking off all the checks for flight.
Networks are also evolving, with demand for 4G LTE emerging as an increasing number of field workers require the ability to establish live video links to show what they are working on and discuss issues with office based experts and controllers.
For example, a health worker can send the patient video to a specialist, or connect to remote experts such as doctors. LTE is also useful for big file transfers, says Tucker. Meanwhile, using LTE, news agencies that are first on the scene can upload video before their competitors.
As LTE emerges, cloud technology is becoming more prevalent too. Cloud is growing, but has not been adopted on a large scale yet, Tucker points out. ‘Lots of people are very cloud-interested and aware but a lot of people are affected by disconnected state - how does cloud manage in semi-connected state?’ asks Tucker.
However, Getac anticipates a growing demand from the area. ‘Cloud storage is growing and companies using tablets need to make sure they have the upload and download speeds. LTE will also help with that,’ says Molyneux.
As new technologies take hold, ruggedised devices are entering a new era. The challenge will be to meet demand for consumer form factors, while maintaining robust, long lasting devices. As Molyneux says: ‘The model is changing: the market, the model and the customers. It is all changing.’