The rugged mobile devices market is being forced to evolve, with tablets becoming commonplace as field workers demand devices with a similar look and feel to the ones they use at home.
This is prompting a move away from the traditional Windows operating system, as the flexibility and low cost of Android takes hold. It is part of a consumerisation trend that is pushing rugged devices into the mainstream across a wider variety of applications.
However, Jerker Hellström, CEO and founder, Handheld Group, warns: ‘Yes, you can buy an IP67 waterproof Android smartphone from the high street off the shelf. But from a rugged device manufacturer perspective, it’s important to understand where we can add value to an end user’s solution.’
This consumerisation evolution does not come without issues. There is pressure on manufacturers to prove total cost of ownership (TCO) and that the return on investment (RoI) is better for rugged devices. The industry is now struggling to convince businesses that resilience is the key factor when users ask for iPad-like tablets in the field.
At the same time, an increasing number of applications for rugged devices are providing the potential for the industry to expand. One development likely to shake up the market is the UK Government’s £1bn-plus Emergency Services Network, which will replace the current TETRA two-way radio communications network used by the emergency services with a 4G LTE service.
Scheduled to be operational for 2016, the platform will provide LTE access to all emergency services personnel. Peter Molyneux, president, Getac UK, explains: ‘There are 240,000 police officers in Britain and the market is now considering the idea of personal issue tablets, allowing access to vital data in the field, driving cost savings and higher performance. That might see rugged devices become mainstream.’
Another major development will see rugged devices used by military soldiers in the battlefield. According to Jon Tucker, European product marketing manager at Panasonic: ‘There is a lot of military interest: soldiers will get a device in the future so they are all connected in the battlefield. This is for visibility, efficiency, and communications. So you know where all your assets are, and equipment, also making sure that no one can be located by the enemy.’
These cases are not isolated: improvements in the global economic situation mean customers are more ready to buy. This is already being felt by device manufacturers. The biggest large format rugged devices player, Panasonic, has increased its year-on-year market share to 71% from 66%. Within that, tablet share has grown from 42% to 58%.
Across the industry, laptops and notebooks are in decline as tablets are used increasingly in the field. According to Hellström, this evolution will have a similar impact ‘as the laptop had on the desktop market’. He adds: ‘The majority of our business is tablet or PDA form factor. There is a space for the large form factor notebook, but it’s not an area that’s growing.’
This is driven by consumerisation, says Sandy McCaskie, director, EMEA, Xplore Technologies. ‘But at the same time, people don’t want to sacrifice their connectivity. They want all the ports; a rugged tablet that’s thin enough, light enough, that can be used when it’s wet – but also have all that connectivity.’
As a result, form factors are already changing. According to McCaskie, improvements in technology and engineering are allowing firms to make a tablet half as heavy as a year ago. He says: ‘They are 2.4kg now and used to be 5kg. It is changing the way the workforce uses them: they were in vehicle mounts and held in hands. Now they are carried around.’
The drive to greater mobility is also seeing screen size decreasing: the 7-inch is growing in popularity, Tucker says, and the firm offers a tablet of this size, the FZ-M1. ‘We are trying to turn the 7-inch tablet into a business tool,’ he adds.
Meanwhile, Ian Davies, country manager, Northern Europe, at Motion Computing says, there is growing interest in a larger screen format. ‘Local councils are looking at these. Also utility companies need a large screen and apps on the devices for workforce management.’
However, while consumerisation is dramatically influencing the market, those who deploy devices such as iPads can face issues. Enterprises are using consumer tablets and smartphones in demanding environments because they are cheaper, but this can be a false economy if there are breakages, and downtime waiting for repairs or replacements is taken into account.
For example, says McCaskie: ‘The majority of computers are designed to operate at room temperature; outside you are using more power to get to the right temperature – or trying to cool down, so the speed will suffer. If you want full speed in all conditions, you want rugged; the bigger companies know this. It’s people who are new to rugged that need to be educated.’
Resilience in the field
Additionally, says McCaskie, battery life can be a major problem. ‘Batteries only last a year and a half before losing their charge. Rugged customers expect five years. It’s all about productivity. If a field worker can do their work without a tablet, get them an iPad. If you can’t do your job without it, buy rugged.’
Davies agrees, but he says that users are realising the benefits of a more rugged device. ‘While things get dropped, it’s about how reliable they are in the hands of the specific users. If they can’t use it in bright sunlight – or a less robust device gets accidentally dropped – it starts to impact on the total cost of ownership, and customers are starting to realise that.’
However, cost will always be of importance to enterprises. This is resulting in many looking to Android as an alternative to Windows OSs. The cost of deployment and development is lower on Android – and there is uncertainty over Microsoft’s support for various mobile operating systems. In the past, Android security has been called into question, but the newer version of Kit Kat 4.4 has introduced major improvements in the area.
Handheld’s Hellström notes: ‘Android has brought a choice and easy access to off-the-shelf applications that can be swiftly deployed to a mobile workforce. If anything, operating systems are changing to support and keep pace with end user requirements, demands and expectations.
‘But don’t write off the traditional OS platforms too early,’ he advises. ‘There will always be a need for legacy OS support in any vendor’s hardware catalogue and – believe it or not – it’s not unusual to still see DOS or Windows XP requested.’
Tucker says Android is useful for deploying a new app that hasn’t been used before. Android is also ideal for smaller screen sizes due to the lower power requirements of the processor compared with Windows. Getac’s Molyneux adds: ‘This allows thinner and lighter devices with longer battery life.’
As customers continue to demand more but want to pay less, rugged manufacturers must produce consumer devices that satisfy all needs. The move to Android has so far helped to address this, but the conflict between cost effectiveness, robustness and form factor continues.
Consumerisation is fuelling a change to the way in which rugged devices are bought. Xplore Technologies' McCaskie explains: ‘If you go back 15 or 20 years, about 20% of a decision would be based on the user and 805 on the IT department. There has been a massive shift; some companies say 80% of the purchasing decision is now based on user preferences.
Motion Computing’s Davies agrees: In large organisations, we are seeing users involved a lot more. The selection in the first place isn’t just done by the IT manager – users help to choose the devices.’
He cites the example of Thames Water, which trialled devices on 200 users before widening out to 800 people when deploying the Motion F5te tablet PC. The tablet, running Windows 8, will run Thames Water’s SAP and ClickSoftware asset and field management systems.