Toughening Up The Enterprise Tablet

cell phone with a broken screenI write a fair bit about enterprise mobility. I also have a smartphone with a very visible crack across the screen, so I know about some of the challenges that mobility presents…

The answer of course is ruggedization — the process of making devices tough enough to withstand drops and knocks, damp and dust, electromagnetic interference and vibration. If you work in an industrial environment, you will probably already be familiar with rugged industrial handhelds. They have been around for decades — I well remember meeting the then-MD of Husky Computers some time in the late 1980s, where at one point he nonchalantly threw one of his company’s portable microcomputers over his shoulder. It bounced off the wall and thudded on the floor, but when he picked it up it still worked perfectly.

Those were specialist mobile devices for specialist users, though — the construction industry, field engineers… even hydrodynamicists who spent their working hours standing in rivers. They were not cheap, nor were they easy or fast to design, especially once the military got involved. Qualifications, certifications, and lengthy test procedures all combined to ensure that it could take years to develop an industrial device.

Fast forward 25 or 30 years and mobility is ubiquitous — and not just for office workers. Almost anyone today could be using an iPad or some other tablet for their job, no matter how tough their working environment, from craftspeople looking up plans in dusty workshops, through stock controllers in chilly cold-stores, to canvassers in the rain.

Those industrial handhelds still have their niches — think of the near-antique handheld that your parcel courier asks you to ‘sign’ — and they are still expensive and slow to design. But there is a huge range of new markets for mobility too, in areas where no one is willing to put up with old and clunky technology if they can avoid it. Consumerization and BYOD are testament to that. People are happier and more productive using their own familiar and up-to-date devices, rather than having to wrestle with whatever some smooth-tongued salesperson once foisted onto the purchasing manager over a long and boozy lunch.

Which is one reason why we are starting to see rugged phones becoming mass market propositions. They’ve been available from specialist brands such as JCB and Caterpillar for a while, but now the likes of Sony, Samsung, and Motorola are offering up-to-date smartphones that just happen to also be rugged. And that’s not just a bit more rubber on the casing — they are typically IP67 or IP68-rugged, making them dust-proof and submersible. (The first IP number is protection versus solids and is out of 6, the second is versus liquids and is out of 8. No, I don’t understand why the scales are so weird either.)

And as the business use of tablets rockets upward, rugged tablets are appearing as well. The challenge for companies such as Panasonic — the market leader in rugged notebooks, who now offer a Toughpad tablet line too – and its many rivals is keeping up to date. It can take 15 to 18 months or longer to build a fully-rugged Android or Windows tablet from scratch, so you can pretty much guarantee that while a tough tablet will survive falling off a car roof – this is a surprisingly common failure mode for mobile gear – it is always going to be a couple of years behind the times.

This is changing though. Talking recently to Peter Molyneux, the UK boss of rugged manufacturer Getac, he said that while ruggedization continues to be a challenge, the user experience is a lot closer now to the cutting edge than it has been in the past. That’s because companies like his can now get a new highly-durable tablet from concept to market in 12 months. He says it helps that, as part of the Mitac empire, Getac has direct access to pretty much all of the extra technologies involved, from high-tech magnesium alloys to 3D wireless antenna design.

Some things cannot change of course, most notably portability. Building a device that can withstand being dropped into water for a few minutes is one thing, but if you want it to survive a four-foot drop onto concrete, that is something else entirely. So a rugged tablet will always be more bulky and expensive than an Apple iPad or Microsoft Surface. But then again, if it keeps you working and saves the cost of replacing broken devices, it should be worth it. Either way, it makes tablet PCs a practical proposition for a lot more business uses.