Smaller form-factor devices by their nature have a great need to be ruggedised. In the consumer market everyone has the story of the phone they dropped in a puddle or that shattered when it fell from a desktop. For commercial users, that’s unacceptable, and unattractive consumer market rubber sleeves don’t address their needs.
‘Rugged PDAs have been at the heart of the rugged market for a very long time,’ says Dave Cawsey, the managing director of Handheld UK. ‘Rugged manufacturers have improved space requirements and how devices are ruggedised so that enormous protective end bumpers are no longer required.
‘For example, our ultra-rugged NAUTIZ X1 smartphone is only slightly thicker than a fragile iPhone, but offers the dust-proof, water-proof performance our users require.’
That greater robustness goes hand-in-hand with the need to take account of the specific needs of professional users. ‘Our recent focus has been on purpose-built and optimised mission-critical handheld LTE devices for public safety,’ says David Parry, the director of EA solutions marketing at Motorola Solutions.
‘Whether it is high-priority broadband data or streaming real-time video, an urgent dispatch update or interoperable push-to-talk, rugged devices that enable mission critical operators to make use of advanced mobile broadband technology are highly attractive. This sector, with its very particular demands, requires enhanced performance, security, user interface and ergonomics, all wrapped in the most durable form factor.’
However, much of the underlying technology draws on the consumerisation of IT. ‘In the past, governments and large commercial organisations used to develop the devices, but everything comes from the consumer or smartphone world now,’ says Eric de Greef, the business manager for mobility at Honeywell EMEA (which also owns the Intermec brand).
‘Years ago, on a technical level, nobody thought of operating systems like Android coming into our market but they’re certainly here now, and users expect to get a device from their employer that is at least as powerful as their personal device. They want a big screen with no keys and a nice form factor,’ says de Greef.
That has put ruggedised device makers under pressure. ‘PDAs have been a bit whiplashed in terms of customer demands, similar to what we’ve seen in the consumer market,’ agrees Cawsey.
‘For a long time, everyone had marching orders that were simply: smaller, faster. But speeds have now reached a point that they get the job done without slowing people’s natural workflow. And, more interestingly, we’re seeing the “smaller” command actually reversing.
‘Field workers in all industries are understandably sensitive to the device weight and size, and that hasn’t changed, but from tablets they’ve now learned the benefits of a big screen,’ he adds.
‘There is a slight trade-off in terms of portability, but our customers have told us that the advantages are worth it. We’ve learned a lot about weight management from deploying rugged tablets. Our new NAUTIZ X8 ultra-rugged PDA has a 4.7-inch touchscreen compared with the usual 3.5-inch screen that we’ve all grown accustomed to,’ says Cawsey.
However, de Greef points out that this remains a highly specialised market. ‘Our competitors are not Samsung – they produce weekly what we produce annually,’ he says.
‘Smartphones have too many limitations for our customers. They break more often, and on a device like the iPhone you can’t replace the battery without sending it off. Our batteries are hot swappable, our devices have high ingress protection ratings (IP) and can be dropped 200 times onto concrete from 1.2m or 1.8m, which is totally unthinkable for Apple or Samsung.’
De Greef adds that Honeywell tests its devices to -20C. ‘Every device suffers at low temperatures but ours will power up and work – your iPhone won’t work for half an hour at -15C,’ he adds.
Honeywell has a range of ruggedised devices available to suit customer requirements and has also developed Enterprise Sleds that contain features such as an additional battery and a 2D barcode scanner built in to the sled, which encases an Apple device, providing additional protection as well as the extra features.
Although users can use smartphones to take a picture of a barcode or QR code, it’s a clunky experience and ruggedised device vendors see the continued need for dedicated 2D scanning capability.
Device maker Janam has recently launched its XT1 ruggedised device, which is equipped with integrated 2D barcode scanning technology to eliminate the challenges often associated with camera scanners or bulky sled attachments.
‘Many enterprise customers require more screen viewability than traditional PDAs or handheld computers offer, yet full display rugged tablets are large, thick, heavy and unwieldy,’ says Harry Lerner, the chief executive of Janam.
‘The XT1 blends technologies most often found in consumer phones with mission-critical key features that enterprises need such as ruggedness, sealing, barcode scanning and rapid battery recharging, among others. The result is a sleek, lightweight, rugged mini-tablet that delivers superior performance without sacrificing usability.’
At the same time as incorporating more features and smartphone-like capability, small form factor ruggedised devices are becoming stronger. ‘Devices are getting tougher, so the expectation is to see IP67 ratings to withstand dust, rain and water immersion, while also being able to withstand reasonable drops to concrete,’ adds Motorola’s Parry.
‘This means rubberised impact zones, but not to the detriment of the form factor, because the device has to balance survivability with usability. Better still is not to drop the device at all, so non-slip textures are key for enabling one-handed operation, even with wet hands or when wearing gloves.’
However, the market is turning away from devices with lots of durable keys and responding to the need for touch screen terminals that users are already familiar with from their consumer mobile devices.
‘As with any modern PDA or smartphone device the screen is the key interface, so the glass surface must be resistant to scratches, drops, pressure, and liquid chemicals spilled on the device,’ explains Parry.
‘Capacitative touch screens also need to be clearly readable in sunlight. We are also integrating suites of sensors that automatically detect ambient light, location, orientation, proximity, vibration, and drops, to enhance context-awareness.’
‘A key difference that affects customer expectations is that rugged devices are still generally deployed for one specific task,’ says Cawsey.
‘Whereas your personal mobile phone has become your contact database, phone, camera, calendar, gaming centre, social media access, and much more, rugged devices are largely used for one very specific work task, with customised software or accessories to get that job done. The requirements of that specific task drive the exact requirements for features.’