Rugged Computing Industry Discussion (1)
Rugged Tablet PC company executives answer RuggedPCReview's questions about opportunities in the rugged and semi-rugged tablet market as a result of the iPad's popularity.
Tablet computers have been around for over 20 years. For most of that time tablets were niche market products, with brief periods of more public interest such as the early 1990s when pen computing attracted attention (remember, the original IBM ThinkPad was a tablet) and Microsoft's 2002 push with the Tablet PC.
Over the past two years, the Apple iPad dramatically changed the tablet landscape by legitimizing the form factor with an elegant, easy-to-use multi-touch interface first popularized on the iPhone in 2007, and now used on hundreds of millions of smartphones.
With well over 50 million iPads sold, it's clear that the tablet concept works. Yet, Android tablets have been far less successful in challenging the iPad's predominance than Android smartphones have been in establishing a viable alternative in that market. So on the one hand, there's a great opportunity in vertical market tablets, and by that I mean more durable and more rugged versions of a media tablet. For some reason, though, we're really not seeing any.
What we do see is Apple making significant inroads in traditionally vertical markets. For example, the Lowe's home improvement chain is deploying 42,000 iPhones when, in the past, they'd probably have bought rugged handhelds. And Veterans Affairs is supposedly contemplating deploying as many as 100,000 iPads in VA hospitals, again a sale that in the past probably would have gone to ruggedized vertical market products.
In short, at RuggedPCReview.com, we're seeing both unprecedented demand and an opportunity for the tablet form factor, but few products that seek to take advantage of that need on the more rugged side. We're trying to find out why that is, and how traditional rugged computing industry players view the situation. Answers to the following questions will help shedding light on the situation and present to our readers and site visitors how the rugged industry views matters.
We'd like to thank Maureen Szlemp at MobileDemand for initiating this project and procuring answers to our questions below from a group of apparently friendly competitors in the field mobility and tablet technology space (See Part 2 of the series: Responses by the Handheld Group and Motion Computing). Other players in this space who would like to share their views are invited to submit their answers as well.
-- Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, Editor-in-Chief, RuggedPCReview.com
1. Do you think it is realistically possible to create a "vertical market" tablet that essentially provides the functionality and ease-of-use of the iPad in a more durable, more rugged package?
Matt Miller (President, MobileDemand): In terms of ease-of-use, it is absolutely possible. The Windows 7 user interface available today is a step in the right direction. Windows 8 is right around the corner and from what we've seen so far, this new operating system is likely to leave all others in the dust when it comes to on-screen functionality and ease-of-use. In addition, it is far better suited to enterprise applications. Packaging will become thinner and lighter over time, but the inherent characteristics necessary to achieve rugged packaging will continue to require more weight. Even with magnesium alloy cases and Gorilla Glass, the electronics and batteries required for scanning, high-powered radios, RFID, CAC readers, sunlight readable displays and other functionality needed for use in vertical enterprise applications will continue to add weight to these devices for some time to come.
Khalid Kidari (Director of Product Management and Marketing, DAP Technologies): Yes. This is what we've essentially accomplished with our M9010 rugged tablet, which combines the user-friendly functionality of consumer tablets with the ruggedness, functionality and usability required in vertical markets. With this tablet that's IP67 and rated for multiple 6-foot drops to concrete, users also have a user interface that is touch-friendly and screen that changes orientation based on how the device is held. What's more, the tablet also includes the functionality necessary for these markets because it is designed specifically for them. For example, it includes a built-in scanner for easy data collection and can be used with gloves, both of which are necessities in the markets we serve.
Martin Smekal (President and CEO, TabletKiosk): Yes, we do — we've built a business on this for almost a decade. What has changed is the demand in the consumer space for the form factor as well as the design/packaging, and for the consumer it's a wonderful device for its intended market. As soon as you enter the enterprise, you add requirements that make total functionality and ease-of-use a balancing act with longevity, security, and ROI to name a few. But, yes, it is definitely possible — and the more the consumer tablet market evolves and demand expands, the more enterprise and rugged devices will continue to evolve to meet rising expectations.
Mark Holleran (President and COO, Xplore Technologies): It may be realistically possible to create such a tablet. However, the question becomes how rugged will this "vertical market" tablet be. Currently, we are seeing the development of more semi-rugged tablets. These semi rugged tablets have more of a consumer tablet look and feel to them, but cannot withstand some of the rugged environments. To make truly rugged tablets, which meet all the certifications and stand up to some of the most rugged environments in the world, there will has to be some sacrifice on weight. The rugged tablets on the market today provide the same functionality and ease of use as an iPad; For example, the Xplore tablet has been called "the iPad on steroids." It may weigh a little more than the iPad, but Xplore's tablet is capable of providing more solutions to our customers and won't break under the same conditions an iPad would.
There are aspects of the iPad which are lacking and could only be detrimental if replicated by a rugged device. The iPad's capacitative touchscreen, for example, works great in your living room, but is useless in wet or cold environments. Also, the iPads processing power (only 512mb) and lack of ports eliminate it from most truly rugged environments.
A rugged alternative to the iPad needs heavy-duty processing power, numerous ports, withstanding real-world drops, and a competitive price.
2. We consider the effortless tapping, panning, pinching, zooming, etc., enabled by capacitive multi-touch a core element of the iPad's success (as evidenced that virtually all smartphones now use it). Yet, capacitive multi-touch has to-date not been adopted in vertical market tablets. Why is that? And will it change?
Miller: Windows has been the operating system of choice in the vertical market tablet space and to-date, Microsoft has not supported an OS with these features. Also, capacitive multi-touch has not proven to work well in typical vertical application environments - particularly in cold and hot temperatures. When a merchandiser takes a tablet from a 100 degree car into a cooler in the back of a convenience store to do his job, he needs the device to work... every time. The iPad, for example, has an operating temperature range of 32° to 95° F. Apple's own documentation indicates that "low- or high-temperature conditions might temporarily shorten battery life or cause the device to temporarily stop working properly" (see here). Rugged tablets generally have a temperature range of -4° to +122° F. As capacitive multi-touch technology advances and achieves reliable performance in all environments, it will become more widely supported by enterprise class tablet providers and adopted by vertical market users for some applications.
Kidari: Capacitive multi-touch hasn't been adopted in vertical market tablets primarily because it can't be operated with gloves, which are worn on the job in many of these markets. While there are special gloves and styluses that can be purchased to work with these devices, these are prone to wearing out or getting lost and are a general hassle to users.
A better solution, and one that is currently under development, is resistive multi-touch that allows users to pan, pinch and zoom. Ultimately, users don't really care what technology makes their touchscreens work, they simply want the functionality of multi-touch, and we'll be seeing this come to market soon.
Smekal: From our vantage point, the reason that capacitive multi-touch has not yet become ubiquitous in the vertical tablet and Tablet PC markets is because the enterprise market has not demanded it. And, they have not demanded it because in truth, they don't need multi-touch — at least not with today's enterprise software. Multi-touch is useful primarily for enlarging images. The overwhelming majority of enterprise touch-based software packages feature large and intuitive buttons for things like patient surveys, mobile gaming and POS. Another obstacle with capacitive technology is that the touch technology requires a bare finger to complete the circuit — vertical markets where staff wear gloves, including hospitals and many field service organizations, would be at a significant productivity disadvantage.
Holleran: Capacitive multi-touch has not been adopted by those of us in the rugged market because it uses the heat from a person's fingers to input the tapping, panning, pinching and zooming and the screen is not durable enough to survive the rugged environments our tablets are placed into on a daily basis. However, we are incorporating resistive touch into our tablets, which responds to pressure to tap, pinch and zoom and has the additional benefit of a more durable screen.
3. While Android is hugely successful in smartphones, it has struggled in tablets. Why do you think that is, and are the verticals missing a big opportunity by not at least exploring Android versions of rugged tablets?
Miller: Some manufacturers are starting to introduce Android devices for uses that don't require all the functionality or reliability of complex enterprise applications. The Android platform is still not ready for prime time in the enterprise, at least not by customers in rugged tablet markets. It doesn't currently meet the necessary enterprise requirements for security, peripheral management, software tools or long-term support (5-7 years). Many consumer technologies have come and gone and IT organizations that need to support and protect technology investments cannot afford to commit to technologies that change every six months. Some large scale deployments can take a couple of years to complete the rollout. IT needs a stable system that will be supported for a number of years, not one that could go end-of-life before a rollout is completed.
Kidari: Android it is still trying to find its way on tablets and there is learning that has to happen along the way, but it wouldn't be fair to call it unsuccessful. Android is essentially a fragmented system built for multiple hardware platforms, and there are significant differences between versions on one tablet and another. iOS on the other hand offers seamless integration because it is built to run all on one system. Without this seamless integration, there is an implied risk to IT managers in vertical markets.
Plus, they've invested countless time and resources perfecting their Microsoft-based networks, which dominate enterprise. If companies are going to make a move to tablets, they are likely going to opt for less risk and choose a Microsoft-based tablet or Apple, which is perceived as having a near-flawless reputation.
With Android tablets rushing to play catch up with Apple, many are rushing to market and making mistakes. This contributes to the perception of risk for Android tablets and builds on the hesitancy toward Android tablets in vertical markets.
Additional challenges include: dealing with the number of software certifications that would be needed every time a new version of Android came out; system integrity and compatibility of what would become a fragmented network. There is a plethora of consumer applications for Android, but vertical software providers have not yet fully embraced Android for line-of-business (LOB) applications for the enterprise.
There has been some discussion about "thick" versus "thin" client and everything going to the cloud, which would perhaps make Android a more viable option for LOB applications in the future. But there are still a lot of challenges that need to be addressed before cloud applications are widely adopted by enterprises. Reliability of real-time mobile data collection, bar code scanning and printing via cloud applications is still suspect.
Smekal: One huge advantage that Apple has is that they've launched a product where they control both the hardware and the software. From a development, design, marketing, user experience and manufacturing perspective, this offers tremendous benefits in terms of shaping market perception and responding to market feedback. With Android, one of its greatest benefits (it's open to many different developers/vendors) also has a back of the hand, which is the customer experience can vary greatly and is nowhere near as seamless.
Holleran: Android devices have been on the market for a couple of years — primarily in smart phones and consumer-grade tablets. The technology is changing quickly. There have been new versions of Android introduced almost every year. This causes problems for software developers, many bugs in the system and issues of backwards compatibility. Windows tablets do not pose the same challenges. The Windows OS has been in use in business applications for field workers for decades. Vertical business applications for every conceivable market have been created, tested and used by hundreds of thousands of mobile workers for more than a decade. Additionally, Windows 7 allows virtually any application used on a desktop to run on a Tablet PC. The enterprise is slow to adopt new technology and Android may not be a viable competitor to an operating system like Windows that so entrenched in the market.
4. The iPad does not use a pen. Do you consider the availability of a pen essential in a vertical market rugged tablet?
Miller: iPad with touch works really well for consumer applications. It provides a simple design with big buttons and big text. Business processes are not simple. They are complex and they demand vertical applications that address that complexity. They require viewing a lot of data at once on a screen and a stylus for data input in order to be efficient and productive. There is also a digital ink requirement with many enterprise business applications. Customers do not want to provide a signature using their finger.
Kidari: It depends on the application and the user interface. Most people prefer to use their finger for most navigation because it is simply easier. There is no hunting around for a stylus, which may or may not be easily stored with the device. Pens, however, are required for applications that involve capturing a signature and can be useful for programs that aren't native to touch-based applications. The biggest operational challenge in vertical markets remains gloves, which can't be worn and used to operate capacitive-touch screens.
Smekal: When you focus solely on the enterprise market, you quickly realize that digital inking is an essential feature in many applications, across multiple markets, where an electronic signature is required for compliance reasons, or simply because the business workflow has adopted a paperless work flow. There are, of course, many enterprise applications where a touch-only approach will work fine and is all that is required; but for those applications where it is required, it is a deal-breaker feature that is non-negotiable.
Holleran: Yes, we consider a pen essential to the vertical market rugged tablet because it's another option for the method of data input for our customers. Considering the types of environments rugged tablets are found in, it's likely that a situation may arise where an employee cannot use their bare hands. Many of our customer's work in fields where gloves are necessary and having a pen is necessary to input the type of information required.
5. While the consumer smartphone market is dominated by iOS and Android, vertical handhelds largely still use Windows CE/Mobile, essentially a decade-old platform. Why do we not see Android-based vertical market handhelds?
Miller: Android and iOS have yet to deliver all of the critical OS security and support capabilities that Windows has provided to support vertical markets. Enterprises handle sensitive information such as customer records, credit card numbers and intellectual property. A recent article on the Android OS states that even after factory reset, certain information is retained (see here).
Companies cannot take any chances that security of their data could be compromised.
Kidari: iOS and Android have certain appeal and sound sexy, but a lot of companies simply aren't willing to take the risk. Microsoft still dominates enterprise, with most verticals still using Outlook and Office. Companies have invested a lot of time and resources in perfecting their networks and many are not willing at this point to compromise their investments.
The down economy is also a factor. Companies are eager to stretch their dollars in a down economy and are not willing to assume risk. As the economy improves, they may be willing to take more risks.
Most rugged tablets use a full Windows OS. It has a proven track record of success in the enterprise and Microsoft has made incremental improvements over time to meet the changing needs of its expansive and ever-growing customer base. The Android OS has not been widely adopted by vertical markets because it doesn't allow businesses to leverage the technology investments they have made over time. Android also poses many known and yet unknown challenges due to the platform's fragmentation (see here).
Smekal: Android in a vertical space for a true, robust productivity tool will be a challenge simply because 90% of the business market still relies on Microsoft and something tremendously revolutionary, on a massive scale, is needed to change that tide. At the moment, we're standing on the sidelines waiting to see how the Google vs. Oracle litigation over code is going to play out — our bet is, many corporations feel the same.
Holleran: The Windows OS has been in use in business applications for field workers for decades. Vertical business applications for every conceivable market have been created, tested and used by hundreds of thousands of mobile workers for more than a decade. Additionally, Windows 7 allows virtually any application used on a desktop to run on a Tablet PC.
6. The leverage argument is often used to justify staying within a Microsoft environment. Given the vast number of increasingly sophisticated iOS and Android "apps," is the leverage argument still valid?
Miller: Yes, the "leverage" argument is still valid. The majority of the applications developed for Android and iOS are simplistic and are targeted at consumers. Line of business applications are inherently more complex because business processes are complex. Plus, businesses want to leverage more of their existing applications across the enterprise. For example, MobileDemand is seeing a number of customers who want to extend SAP and other ERP systems into the warehouse. These and other applications are Windows-based. To leverage ERP systems with iOS or Android devices many times requires substantial investment to rewrite the application or add middleware, which would be cost prohibitive.
Kidari: It is still valid. Companies have made significant investments in perfecting their networks and plugging security holes. Many are not willing to open up their networks to risk. Others are waiting to see where iOS and Android are going with respect to enterprise because they need to more predictability before they make a move. Enterprise wants multi-touch screens and apps, but they ideally want these within their own more predictable networks. Multi-touch resistive screens are coming and Microsoft 8 is slated to include apps, so the leverage argument may be strengthened.
Smekal: Again, we're not just talking about the software/application. There is also the server environment to consider; backend consistency is a critical issue for IT support and translates to time and money for a staff that if often under-resourced to begin with. Also, depending on the "app", however sophisticated, you are very likely going to get a "lite" version with functionality that is limited in relation to an X86-based software experience. One is not better than the other per se; there is definitely room for both. But when a full experience is needed to get the job done, a scaled-back phone iOS version of what you really need can be frustrating and actually hinder productivity, no matter how mobile it is.
Holleran: Yes, because you have to take computing power into account. The iPad has 512mb of memory, while Xplore uses 2GB, expandable up to 8GB. iPad and Android apps may be fun, but the software applications required by rugged customers would be too powerful for an iPad or Android device. These are enterprise class software applications that require more CPU power, more memory and disk space.
7. On vertical market tablets, do you view Windows 8 as a more promising, lower-risk alternative to Android?
Miller: Yes. Not only is Windows lower risk than Android, but we believe that Windows 8 will be the breakthrough platform that enterprise vertical markets have been waiting for. Although Microsoft has been undeniably slow in responding to the explosive growth of Android and iOS in the general market space, Windows 8 is an extremely strong enterprise platform that will not only match the user interface features of iOS and Android, but will improve on them.
Kidari: Yes, it will be more accepted in enterprise because it is Microsoft. A lot of people love to hate Microsoft, but they tend to stick with it because it is less risky. Companies are still trying to figure out what Android is all about.
Smekal: The answer is a cautiously optimistic yes, depending on how robust Windows 8 is. For example, we understand that the ARM version of Windows 8 may not allow you to run legacy Windows-based software applications, which could be problematic for some businesses.
Holleran: Yes. 30% of PCs globally use Windows 7 and is receiving record-high customer satisfaction. Obvioulsy people are liking and using what Microsoft is putting out there. Windows 8 is incorporating many swiping and touch interface features into the Windows 7 interface. When you consider that field workers need to be compatible with other departments of the company, it makes more sense to use Windows 8 instead of Android.
8. Do you consider Android on tablets doomed because of Windows 8?
Miller: In the consumer market — No. But for the enterprise market — Yes. The new Windows 8 user interface will be simpler and easier to use and provide many of the cool features that make Android attractive. In addition, there are a tremendous number of applications being developed now, so when Windows 8 launches, so will a robust Windows 8 Marketplace offering an abundance of point-productivity tablet applications for the enterprise. We predict that once it's launched it won't be long before Windows 8 vertical applications surpass those available for Android. Plus these applications will protect businesses technology investments by leveraging legacy software and existing security and device management.
Kidari: No. By the time Windows 8 is released, there will probably be thousands more Android apps available, which will help solidify its place in the market--but most likely the consumer market. Windows 8 will likely dominate enterprise.
Smekal: We believe there may still be a place in the market for Android, especially in the consumer space, but also in some volume-based enterprise market cases where price is a substantial driver. Windows is entrenched in the vast majority of businesses today and even with a major paradigm shift, that will take years to change substantially. We don't usually bet against Microsoft; in the vertical market, they are still the overwhelmingly dominant player with 90% of all desktops running Windows-based applications.
Holleran: Not necessarily. Android will compete with Apple and Microsoft for the consumer tablet space, but will have to make dramatic improvements in security, licensing, and compatibility to compete in rugged vertical markets. The advantage of Windows in general is that it can be found on smartphones, tablets, Macs, notebooks, and rugged and consumer devices. Android is only in the phone/tablet consumer market.
9. Windows 8 promises a more touch-optimized user interface. However, it also appears that while Intel-based systems will be able to use both "classic" Windows and the touch-based Metro interface, ARM-based tablets will only be able to use Metro. What does that mean to those who need legacy Windows applications?
Miller: There will be two classes of Windows 8 tablets. So if a business needs legacy applications then there will be on Intel-based Windows system. For a robust, lighter-weight and potentially longer battery life solution, the ARM — Metro option will be available.
Kidari: That's the million-dollar question right now. Microsoft has not yet made clear its intentions and its strategy — in the public eye anyway — has changed two or three times. It is to Microsoft's benefit to make sure multiple platforms will be compatible.
Smekal: Here we need to clarify how we're using the word 'tablet', a term that has become dangerously broad in the past 2 years. To us, a tablet is an ARM-based device that runs a phone iOS and is meant for/best used for consumption of information - text, mixed media. A Tablet PC is an actual computer, based on X86 architecture that runs a true business-grade O/S (often Windows, but not necessarily) and is a content creation device, a productivity tool. Based on that definition, Windows 8 will be fantastic for the Tablet PC market because it will only enrich their existing robust experience. For the tablet market overall, it will depend. If you have legacy Windows apps that you rely on to get your job done, then an ARM-based Windows 8 device may prove a great obstacle to your productivity.
Holleran: Those who need legacy Windows applications should simply not use ARM-based tablets. It's really that simple. If they need legacy Windows applications, then they need to use a tablet with the capacity to run the necessary applications.
10. On the processor side, do Intel-based platforms remain competitive against ARM-based platforms at a time where customers expect both snappy performance and 10-hour battery life?
Miller: Intel's processor roadmap addresses the need for lower power consumption processing power that will be competitive and potentially superior to ARM. Remember, Intel, like Microsoft, has always had to accommodate the taxing power requirements of the enterprise — such things as bigger batteries, legacy applications, device management, MIPS, accessories and peripherals. Intel has also had to provide a level of integration that ARM has not had to provide to address the needs of its existing customer base. So it is logical that the evolution has been slower. The good news is that there are exciting new processors from Intel on the horizon.
Kidari: Intel has always been competitive and is innovating its chipset to accomplish both.
Smekal: Intel continues to evolve and improve their processors in terms of processing power and boot up time; in reality, who works literally 8-10 continuously in a mobile environment with no down time/ability to recharge? In our experience, it's few if any customers who literally don't have a break, a drive to a client site, a lunch hour, a shift change, where they can power up or have a stand by battery on hand. So long as you have hot swappable batteries, the additional processing power you get from an Intel-based chip vs. the meek experience an ARM can provide for the same task at hand, the battery life discussion is somewhat mystifying to us in the enterprise space. For small data processing tasks, ARM may be fine, but an overwhelming majority of today's workforce relies on Intel for mission-critical jobs where time = productivity = money. Technology advances on the short term horizon may change this, but for now, we're still placing best bets on Intel.
Holleran: ARM is a low-power, consumer alternative processor designed for smartphones and consumer tablets, not devices requiring PC-level processing. An advanced Intel processor is much faster and makes a tablet that uses it just as powerful as a PC.
11. Where have RIM (PlayBook), Motorola (Xoom), HP (TouchPad) and others gone wrong? With such a huge market, is there no room for anyone but Apple?
Miller: The PlayBook, Xoom, TouchPad and iPad are products sold to the consumer market. The enterprise side is different. We don't view any of these devices as strong competitors in the rugged enterprise tablet space for use in line-of-business vertical applications. There have been a few deployments of the iPad and these other devices in the enterprise, but the jury is still out on how well they are performing and how viable they will prove to be in the long term.
Kidari: There is definitely room for other tablets in the market. Apple had the advantage of being first to market, which means they had the opportunity to work without external pressures. Plus, they did it right, building iTunes first and creating their vast and scalable app store. They essentially had the advantage of making their SDK publicly available, thereby indirectly hiring all of the world's best software engineers to develop apps with the incentive of building them right and making money.
Other tablet manufactures haven't had this luxury. They had to start with the hardware and get it to market quickly to play catch up. As more Android apps are created, the field will level a bit.
Smekal: There most certainly is room for more than just Apple, but the reality is that Apple does two things really, really well. The first is design sleek products with ridiculous mass appeal. The second is to create staggering, smart, gotta-have-it technology market awareness. Sony was the big time player and longtime leader in the MP3 market for years. Then all of a sudden, Apple launched a cute, chic little device called the iPod with the cute, chic ads to match.
Holleran: Apple has succeeded in becoming synonymous with the word tablet. The consumer market will continue to be dominated by Apple, but there is room for other tablets in the Enterprise/ Corporate Business market like the rugged tablets to compete with Apple outside the consumer space. The business market has been dominated by Windows and continues to. Microsoft Windows 8 will in our opinion help Microsoft maintain its dominate position in this market.
12. Is a market where vertical tablets essentially have to compete almost directly with the iPad inherently unsuitable/unwinnable for vertical market vendors?
Miller: We have already heard of cases where iPad has been tried and essentially failed due to issues with durability and the lack of functionality required for vertical enterprise applications. Unless Apple comes out with a truly durable tablet that addresses the unique application requirements of a mobile workforce that spends much of their day moving in and out of vehicles in real-world environmental conditions, we just don't view the iPad as a long-term competitive challenge. We consider there to be a number of productivity disadvantages of the iPad platform poses for enterprise applications. Some of these include: total cost of ownership, compatibility, connectivity and support due to the short life cycles of consumer-grade devices.
Kidari: It depends on the vertical market and application. The iPad is not for everyone. It may not have the capabilities to do the work, and it cannot withstand minor bumps or rough handling.
Smekal: We don't think so. Based on our experience to date, there are going to be some customers in the business space for whom the iPad will work fine; however, it's not the majority. Some applications in the home automation market can make do with an iPad. Many customers who have either left us to pursue an iPad deployment or evaluated our Tablet PCs and gone forward with the iPad have come back ° not because the iPad is an inferior product, but because it is not designed in any way, shape, or form for enterprise use. It looks beautiful, the battery life is impressive, and compared to a traditional enterprise Tablet PC the up-front sticker price is significantly less; however, it's fragile and prone to damage; there is no "repair", the device is more often than not just replaced; the product life cycle is short with constant revs and upgrades to accessories (not ideal for regulated deployments in healthcare, e.g.); the service is based on a consumer model (call-in center to an anonymous rep); no replaceable batteries (only replaceable unit); no standard I/O ports, which renders your device useless if you have Internet connectivity problems in the field; no Flash — not now, not ever; no easy way to create content and/or store it on the device; no way to load your existing productivity software onto the device because you are limited to a phone iOS and whatever "apps" may be available (in many cases, a "lite" version of whatever the x86 version would be). Our prediction is that the iPad will continue to flower in enterprise deployments where the requirements are light or image is paramount to functionality, but that true enterprise needs will seek out true enterprise solutions.
Holleran: For truly rugged environments, the iPad isn't a viable option. They don't have the computing power or the ruggedness to compete. Factories, oil exploration companies, and field workers in general need something more like a PC than a tablet. Xplore has seen a 30-40% conversion from rugged notebooks to rugged tablets, because its tablet is truly rugged and can handle heavy-duty applications. We're seeing customers come to us when their iPad's break. We are seeing as IPADS roll out to the enterprise and are being used in tough environments they are failing and being broken and or not enough CPU power to run compute intensive apps and no ports to connect to scanners or test equipment. That's the market where we can compete with Apple, and win.
13. How big of a factor is Android's (perceived or real) platform fragmentation in its struggle in the tablet market?
Miller: We consider the Android platform fragmentation to be huge. Fragmentation is materially significant to customers who need a platform that provides stability, predictability and can be supported for 3-5 years, and sometimes longer. Platforms that do not provide this level of stability will not stay in the game long. Given the lack of penetration in the rugged enterprise tablet market, it's understandable that not much has been written about the impact of Android fragmentation in vertical applications. On the contrary, there are many articles espousing the issues of Android fragmentation in the consumer device space (here is one).
Kidari: It's pretty significant. And with manufacturers trying to play catch-up and rushing devices to market, they are taking shortcuts and making the perception real.
Smekal: We have (intentionally) been watching the Android story play out from the sidelines, mostly due to the pending IP litigation/low customer demand; as such, we don't feel we're in the best position to comment here.
Holleran: The fragmentation of Android is very real and very problematic for end users, developers, mobile operators, device manufacturers, and Google. In the end, it's another hurdle that Android will have to overcome. It has many industry experts frustrated. Peter Wayner of InfoWorld said recently "Do you want the source code to Android 3.0? Sorry. That version is just for special partners who are cutting special deals with Google."
14. Imagine a capacitive touch (with a combo digitizer as an option) tablet with IP67 sealing (should not be difficult with almost no ports and no fan), 5-foot drop spec (also not difficult with such low weight), wide temperature range (again fairly simple with no moving parts), 12-hour battery (can be done with ARM), a clever snap-on peripheral system (they are so tiny now), and a GoPro-style 13mp/1080p still/video subsystem. Would there be a market for such a device? Would it be prohibitively expensive?
Miller: Some of the features you describe are certainly desirable and products on the roadmap will incorporate them. But, even though this "holy grail" product spec may sound like a panacea, in reality, our customers continue to want their rugged enterprise tablets to do more work and to accomplish this work they are asking for more IO ports, not less. Even PCMCIA card slots are still being requested. Perhaps this spec would support some simple applications, but the cost would likely be much more expensive than that of iPads and Android devices available today. At that price point, a limited functioning device would likely hold less appeal to the enterprise market — from both a channel sales and user perspective. In simple economic terms, the limited volumes would not be create a sustainable market.
Kidari: Yes, there is a market for a device like this and building one wouldn't be overly cost-prohibitive. It is important to note that capacitive touch isn't the make-or-break factor; it is all about multi-touch, which is possible on a resistive screen with the added benefit of being used with gloves.
Smekal: Can this be done? Absolutely. Today? Yes. But the retail on this device would likely be between US$1,500-2,000 and unless there was a model in place to subsidize about US$1,000 of it (similar to the subsidy model in the smart phone market), it's not realistic at this point in time, at this point in technology. The back of the hand drawback to increased awareness of the tablet as form factor is the misconception that all tablets are created equal, that all can handle any job, and that all should cost about US$500 or less.
Holleran: Absolutely, there are customers who would love if such a device existed. However, the issue with this hypothetical is the technology to create such a device for the kind of money the consumer is willing to spend on a tablet does not exist yet. Maybe one day a device like this will exist, but it will probably be more expensive than anything in the marketplace.
15. Regardless of all those millions of tablets sold, is it all perhaps just a fad?
Miller: If you are asking if the adoption of tablets such as iPad and Android devices is a fad, then the answer is — No, not in the consumer market. These devices have real appeal and meet the market requirements for consumer devices used mainly for data consumption. They may also be appropriate for some white collar business applications. But for vertical applications for the enterprise, the adoption of iPad and Android devices is most definitely a fad. There have been a few recent deployments and from what we've heard some are already failing. Most enterprises intuitively know that consumer devices won't stand up from either a reliability or functionality standpoint and they are steering clear of even trying them.
Kidari: Tablets are far from a fad. They are the natural evolution of computing, which began with the desktop computer, transitioned into the laptop and is now moving into space where the keyboard is becoming obsolete--and will become more so with further improvements in voice. Display technology has improved so significantly over time that it is now more about interacting with the display and content than it is about typing.
Smekal: From our perspective, this is not a fad but instead a very natural technology evolution.
Holleran: It does not look like tablets as form factor will be going away anytime soon. We are seeing a conversion of 30-40% of the rugged notebook space to rugged tablets. All statistics through the next decade point to the tablet as a form factor that is here to stay. What you are seeing is a Paradigm shift in form factors for PC's. There are now three form factors Tablet, Notebook, and Desktop. The tablet is the new sexy platform.
16. Or is it a market verticals could not possibly compete in, and staying in the more traditional tablet niche markets (very rugged, etc.) is more promising, even if it means conceding large sales to media tablets?
Miller: The rugged enterprise mobile computer market may be smaller than the consumer tablet market, but there is still plenty of opportunity in it. According to VDC, the rugged mobile computer market is approaching US$6 billion. Although today, the rugged tablet market is sized at just under US$400 million, the trend away from laptops, fixed forklift mount computers and screen VGA handhelds toward rugged tablets will open up new segments of this market that we believe will accelerate adoption of rugged tablets. VDC forecasts CAGR at between 12-15% through 2015 and from the growth we are seeing, we think these rates are understated.
Kidari: Tablets may not fit every application. Focusing on the market and considering user needs and applications are just as important as they ever were when developing new products. There is room in the tablet space for both consumer and enterprise products.
Smekal: What will likely happen is consumer/media tablets will evolve as far as they can go and businesses (especially cost-conscious or perhaps technically savvy businesses with deep IT resources) will continue to push the envelope for how these types of devices can be deployed. At the other end, smart more traditional Tablet PC manufacturers will take a cue from the wild success in the consumer market and strike compromises where there make sense to widen their existing potential market base. Perhaps adding an ARM-based tablet to an existing suite of products is one answer. Exploring a subsidy-type partnership might be another. At the end of the day, there will always be a need for a more robust, truly rugged device in a wide host of business and vertically-aligned scenarios. In short, there is room for both to exist side by side, what will make all the difference for the end user is better education about key differentiators so the solution chosen is the best fit for their unique deployment needs.
Holleran: The rugged tablet industry is a growing market.Our business is continuing to grow, and in the best position we've ever been in. We do not see the iPad moving into our vertical market, but rather establishing ourselves as a separate vertical entirely. We are seeing the largest sales in the history of our company. We don't think we're conceding large sales to media tablets because large sales are coming to us for our product.
Xplore is competing better than ever, enjoying record sales and a lot of interest from the population as a whole. Thanks to the iPad, people want the tablet form factor but also realize that they need a serial port, ethernet port, several USB ports, and more computing power than the iPad offers. They want a product that will last a long time. Xplore's products are being used 5-7 years plus in the field. That saves customers money! They do not have to continue to upgrade to the latest model every 1-2years!
Xplore Technologies is seeing significant increased demand in the rugged tablet space. Industry wide we are seeing a conversion of 30-40% of the rugged notebook space to rugged tablets. We also see iPads roll out to the enterprise in large number, but those used in tough environments are failing as a result of being broken or because they don't provide enough CPU power to run compute intensive apps and because they don't have the I/O ports to connect to scanners, test equipment, or legacy hardware.
Xplore is leveraging the impact Apple has made on the market in large part by simply focusing on our specific customers' needs and the deciding factors of the Total Cost of Ownership, not just the entry price point. Lastly, we see forecasts that predict growth in the rugged tablet space for the foreseeable future.
At RuggedPCReview, we're familiar with most current ruggedized tablet products. Like everyone else, we're trying to better understand the tablet phenomenon, and what opportunities it presents to vertical market vendors of durable and ruggedized computing devices.
The above answers from four industry leaders will help in formulating an overview of where the rugged computing industry is headed in the tablet form factor, and what current and potential customers can expect. The iPad phenomenon is probably the largest potential opportunity for our industry ever, and we have high hopes that the rugged computer manufacturing industry will find ways to translate their many years of expertise into products that will ride the iPad's appeal while providing the extra durability and ruggedness many customers need.
And again, other players in this space who would like to share their views are invited to submit their answers to RuggedPCReview.com as well. — Conrad H. Blickenstorfer