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Rugged Computing Industry Discussion (2)

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 1 of the series: Responses by MobileDemand, DAP Technologies, TabletKiosk and Xplore Technologies). 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, May 2012


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?

Jerker Hellström (CEO and Founder, Handheld Group AB): Absolutely. The iPad's ease-of-use and wide adoption actually decreases some of the resistance that IT managers have had in getting their field crews behind electronic data collection. Only a few short years ago, I'd commonly hear that the guys in the field didn't want to learn to deal with "some complicated computer." They were quite happy with their pen & paper. But now, the proliferation of the iPad, iPhone and other consumer electronics means that they've gone through the learning curve on their own time. No longer are tablets and smart phones intimidating. That is a pretty substantial jump. Ease of use has two components — the hardware, and the software. Every new device, we come out with, our Algiz 7 tablet or Algiz XRW rugged notebook for example, is more intuitive than previous generations. And our partner channel of software developers is making some tremendous progress in streamlining software offererings to make them more efficient and effective.

Mike Stinson (VP of Marketing, Motion Computing): Yes. Take the first tablet PC designed specifically for healthcare, the Motion C5. When developing that tablet we selected features, functionality and design based on what we learned the industry requirements were and what clinicians needed. We also built the tablet to run in the Windows environment because that's what the healthcare organizations needed — and in most cases still do.

Even as technology evolves, creating a "vertical market" tablet means having extensive knowledge of the market you're delivering solutions to and a deep understanding of mobile user requirements. As software solutions continue to evolve, ease of use across operating systems (OS) will improve. Then, it's just a matter of understanding which OS is required, what kind of software applications need to be used in that particular environment, and what kind of other capabilities the users need to optimize productivity.

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?

Hellström: Having a device that functions to -20°C means that those using it are likely to be wearing gloves. That is a challenge for a capacitive touchscreen, and a hard one to overcome. For most of our customers, their tablet is a single purpose device. They have one work task that they need to do and a dedicated software program for that purpose. Multi-touch gets less important when the application is about filling out forms. The customers of ours where we see the most interest in multi-touch is in the GIS/GPS area relying heavily on maps. Multi-touch is invaluable there. So, the need for multi-touch (whether via a capacitive or resistive touchscreen) is probably less necessary in the enterprise environment overall, but I do think you'll see some experimentation with this in rugged devices in the coming years.

Stinson: Since 2010, Motion has incorporated touch as an option for its tablets but still retained digitizer pen input for a very specific reason — most vertical markets require it to support their workflows. The software applications essential to field productivity are often comprised of small targets that haven't been optimized for touch input, and as a result, the accuracy of pen input is a requirement.

In vertical market scenarios, many workflows require note taking and signature capture for which a pen is essential. We are definitely seeing an increased interest in touch from our vertical market customers, but the pen is still absolutely essential. In fact, we've seen that if asked to give up one or the other, the pen wins almost every time.

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?

Hellström: If you are talking about enterprise rather than consumer applications, I think there are many reasons for the slower adoption of Android. Enterprise IT relies of software written for specific purposes and requires the infrastructure to deploy and support the hardware and software. That is no small undertaking for IT departments that until now have largely been supporting Windows products. The first foray in this area has been the adoption of smartphones on the Blackberry or Apple OS. That change has forced IT departments to adapt. I think you will see a lot of enterprise Android experimentation in the next few years.

Stinson: The rapid rise of the use of the iPad in business environments was a direct result of its incredibly fast end-user adoption. One interesting exception to the lackluster adoption of Android tablets is the Kindle Fire. It is the most successful Android tablet with over 50 percent market share. While not a vertical tablet in the traditional sense, it is certainly more purpose-built than most other tablets. What makes it successful is the quality and depth of the content and applications available for the Fire's targeted workflow — being an e-reader and media consumption device. This is one of the key things missing on most of the Android tablets available today. While they may have some of the applications that support the workflow, they don't have everything, leaving the user to create a hybrid environment using a VDI interface to access legacy applications.

4. The iPad does not use a pen. Do you consider the availability of a pen essential in a vertical market rugged tablet?

Hellström: No.

Stinson: We believe that fingers are good for navigation and basic application control — they are always available and don't require any learning curve. In many situations, however, the pen significantly improves accuracy, ease of use and is an essential feature for any tablet designed for use in vertical markets. Mobile professionals are able to navigate legacy programs with smaller targets that require the accuracy of pen input — something that would be near impossible with finger touch. The pen also allows users to take notes or capture signatures, which not only improves usability at the point of service but offers operational advantages such as faster billing cycle times, improved documentation accuracy and better issue resolution times.

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?

Hellström: It is one thing for me, as a consumer, to decide that I want an Android tablet. It is entirely different for an enterprise, with legacy systems, many users, and budgetary constraints to decide to change over the whole enterprise. Consumers can experiment with a device here or there. A utility company with 1,000 field technicians can't. They need a proven enterprise device and software running on an operating system that they can integrate with the rest of the company. There are many companies doing that sort of experimentation right now, and it will certainly increase as the smaller or more agile enterprises take the lead.

Stinson: Vertical market handhelds are quite different from vertical market tablets — primarily, they don't offer the same degree of flexibility and often are "point specific" in that they have a single operational function in mind. These solutions are dominated by legacy software and as a result are reliant on older platforms. As the tablet market evolves, we anticipate that the handheld market will shortly begin to follow.

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?

Hellström: Yes, it is still very valid.

Stinson: While there are certainly a number of useful "apps" out there, many of them are reader or light versions of business-critical applications and don't have the features required to support all users. Businesses can't run on "apps" alone — many require full software applications and programs, such as electronic medical records (EMRs) in healthcare or project management and building information model (BIM) software in construction. These full software applications require certain levels of power and performance and many won't work with just any operating system. We see "app"-based tablets co-existing with full Windows tablets for a long time.

7. On vertical market tablets, do you view Windows 8 as a more promising, lower-risk alternative to Android?

Hellström: Possibly slightly. Large enterprises are understandably cautious, they need to be sure that a new OS is one that they can live with for many years. They know Windows, so it is a bit less risky but it is still an OS change.

Stinson: Windows is already a lower-risk alternative to Android, and Windows 8 will only further cement that status, especially with its improved security features. When you couple new enhancements, such as improved touch navigation, the overall user experience will be greatly improved. By offering compatibility with legacy software with some of the mobile phone OS features, Windows 8 has the potential to significantly impact the future of the tablet market — both consumer and business-grade.

8. Do you consider Android on tablets doomed because of Windows 8?

Hellström: Absolutely not. The mobile computer market is growing exponentially, there is plenty of room out there for both.

Stinson: For consumer tablets and general business use or bring-your-own-device (BYOD), no. But for vertical markets where Windows is already outperforming Android, yes Windows 8 will be an even bigger threat. Unless the vendor and/or the user are able to build a complete and stable solution that is independent of Google's Android roadmap, it is going to be difficult for Android to dislodge Windows. Vertical customers need a solution that has some depth to it and will remain stable over a number of years. Google isn't really focused on either of those points — they are more interested in rapid iteration as both the Android OS and its ecosystem matures. This is good for a consumer or a general business person, but it will wreak havoc on the vertical user.

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?

Hellström: It means that ARM based tablets will not be an option for those applications. Will ARM based units be able to compete with Android is the interesting question.

Stinson: It means that they need to use an Intel-based tablet. ARM-based Windows 8 tablets are expected to be very consumer-focused; at least for the first 12 months as the business software developers develop Metro UI versions of their enterprise applications. It comes down to need. If a business needs to run legacy Windows applications, then it's going to find a solution to support that. With the amount of tablets available today, businesses don't have to make concessions when it comes to selecting a device. It is time-consuming and costly to either make a complete OS switch or to configure "apps" to fit existing workflows — many of our customers just don't have the time or the resources to do it. Consider a retailer looking to upgrade its systems — if it's after summertime, it's just not an option to look at a different operating environment.

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?

Hellström: Yes, with the latest Atom chipsets there is both speed and low power, plus the huge advantage of legacy application compatibility.

Stinson: Yes, because ARM-based platforms won't run the applications that certain customers need. It's important to differentiate between consumer and vertical business markets. ARM-based platforms mainly consist of consumer devices. Many vertical businesses run intensive software applications and programs that require powerful processors. We're also at a point where the technology can support these high levels of performance while maintaining seven to eight hours of battery life, or all day use.

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?

Hellström: There are always reasons beyond the technical specs why some devices/companies succeed where others failed: timing, marketing, pricing, and just plain old luck play a part. There is plenty of room in this expanding market for other players. Apple training consumers about the benefits and gained efficiencies of mobile devices: it helps us all.

Stinson: The primary problem was that there were no business applications for their business tablets. Hardware folks don't always like to acknowledge the fact that software drives the selection of hardware, but it has been true in the past and it still seems to be the case now.

It's not that there's no room for anyone but Apple, but that Apple led the way, and as a result, offers a much more mature solution — in comparison to Android-based devices. The fact of the matter is that it's not about the tablet so to speak — it's about the application. Whether the application needed is available via the iOS on the iPad or through the Motion J3500 Tablet PC is what makes the decision for many vertical market businesses -- that and features that help devices to be more usable and protected in harsh working conditions.

12. Is a market where vertical tablets essentially have to compete almost directly with the iPad inherently unsuitable/unwinnable for vertical market vendors?

Hellström: No. If an iPad will work for your enterprise, go for it. But the reality is that the lack of ruggedness does matter. We've been down this road many times, and will probably revisit it again after this. Enterprises can try to outfit their mobile field workers with consumer grade devices in order to save some upfront costs. But in the end, there is a true and compelling case for supplying them with devices that are designed to truly meet their needs.

Stinson: No — the Kindle Fire is doing a great job against the iPad. It's picked up 50% of the tablet market share. If you are going to compete head to head against the iPad, you need to be focused on an area where you have an advantage. Because the iPad is so well known, it's going to be the first thing most people think of when considering mobilizing their workforces. However, it's not going to be the only device evaluated. Most organizations will take usability, integration, security and costs into consideration. Once vertical businesses really examine their workflows, they'll often find that they need more processing power than originally thought, the ability to clearly view the tablets outdoors or integrated features that can reduce the amount of devices that must be managed in the field.

13. How big of a factor is Android's (perceived or real) platform fragmentation in its struggle in the tablet market?

Hellström: It probably has some impact. It is definitely easier to get behind an OS with a clear story and a clear direction. You yourself have often complained of how Microsoft handled that with Windows Mobile. Enterprise users make long-term buying decisions — a clear and straightforward direction on the Android OS would probably put some minds at ease.

Stinson: It's definitely a factor and an example of something trying to be too many things for too many people. There's a lot going on with multiple versions of the OS and platforms ranging from smartphones to tablets to TVs. In this case, the solution is perceived as "unstable" which makes it difficult for IT buyers to support — both from a technical and a management perspective. The current incompatibilities across OS versions and the lack of a consistent upgrade path from one version to the next are also problems. It is very difficult to use Android as the basis for a managed platform for vertical business customers.

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?

Hellström: Yes, there would be a market for a device like that. But the volumes are going to be what drive the pricing and it is unlikely that you'll see a quality device with these specs even at massive volumes for under $1,000. But to get those volumes, this device needs to hold extremely wide appeal and based on our customer requests I'm not sure it would. The majority of our users attach their tablet to something else, a probe, a sensor, a printers. Adding that level of connectivity opens a can of worms on your device specs.

Stinson: There's always a market, meaning there's going to be someone out there whose workflow demands these types of specifications. However, keep in mind that the market is most likely going to be a small one. It's important for vendors to find the right balance — too many features can drive up price as well as limit a device's success.

15. Regardless of all those millions of tablets sold, is it all perhaps just a fad?

Hellström: Not a chance. The response to the Handheld Algiz 7 rugged tablet has been overwhelming. It isn't just because people are jumping on the tablet bandwagon, but rather that it gives them more screen real estate than they'd had to live with on rugged PDAs, at a considerably lower cost and lower weight that rugged tablets have previously offered. The applications will only grow from here.

Stinson: Tablets are here to stay. As technology has progressed, we've become more and more mobile, expecting anytime, anywhere access to information. By experiencing the benefits in our personal lives, it's only a natural progression that we would then apply it to the professional realm. Tablets are a combination of the right form factor, ergonomics, integrated features, battery life, performance and price..

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?

Hellström: This is just a different market. There is enough business on the consumer side and the enterprise side to keep both models healthy and growing. Rugged tablet computers are used by people with a mission-critical application, media tablets generally aren't. Increasing sales on both ends of the spectrum helps everyone: component costs come down, performance specs improve. A rising tide raises all the boats, and in this case our "boat" is able to actually survive in that water.

Stinson: There are many organizations that will still have to rely on durability — where a case just won't provide the protection they need. In these cases, both safety and uptime are going to be the primary purchase drivers. However, in other cases, the price premium of a fully-rugged tablet may no longer be justifiable. More and more users are realizing that there are a variety of devices on the market that will fit their specific needs. It's no longer one-size-fits-all. It's critical that buyers examine their workflows first — devices second, and very importantly not the other way around.

See Part 1: Responses by MobileDemand, DAP Technologies, TabletKiosk and Xplore Technologies

Concluding remarks

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