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How will the rugged smartphone trend affect rugged computer makers?

article image Jerker Hellström, CEO, Handheld Group

Handheld Group’s founder and CEO Jerker Hellström takes a look at the reasons for the new global trend of ‘ruggedish’ smartphones and how it will impact the traditional rugged computer makers. 

Large cell phone and computer manufacturers are increasingly launching smartphones and other mobile devices that are rugged, or rather ‘ruggedish’. Many large mobile phone and computer makers are scrambling to make their devices more rugged, not only for field workers but also for the mass consumer market. Examples include Sony’s waterproof Xperia Z model, or Samsung’s waterproof and dustproof Galaxy X4 Active. Even the trusted and delicate iPhone can become water-resistant with one of the increasingly popular smartphone cases. 

However, most smartphones and mobile computers sold today are still not rugged in any aspect. More importantly, the waterproof devices that cell phone makers launch are not truly rugged or ruggedized – they are more ‘ruggedish’; they might be waterproof but lack other aspects of ruggedness such as the ability to function well in low or high temperatures.

Ruggedized devices should have passed some of the MIL-STD tests such as the American military standard for equipment. Twenty-four laboratory test methods ensure that the equipment can handle low pressure at high altitudes; exposure to high and low temperatures plus temperature shocks; rain; humidity; sand and dust exposure; leakage; and shock and vibration. Additionally, they must be highly rated on the IP scale for protection against dust and liquids.  

Many of the new ruggedish smartphones launched by the big cell phone makers have high IP ratings, but seldom as high as the truly rugged smartphones offered by traditional rugged computer makers. Since the ruggedish devices are hardly tested for 810G standards, they do not handle extreme temperatures, drops or vibrations very well. They might be water resistant but not shock resistant.

This new ruggedish trend comes down to the huge success of smartphones and mobility in general. People carry their smartphones or tablets everywhere, are constantly online, and want their devices to also work when they are jogging in the rain or dancing in a crowded bar. They also keep dropping them, cracking the display. Bigger smartphones or phablets are harder to slide into the pocket or purse, and are more likely to end up on the floor. 

Traditional rugged computer makers are best equipped to supply truly rugged smartphones and tablets. So the traditional truly rugged segment of the mobile computer and smartphone market is growing and becoming more attractive to the mass market, and the mass producers of smartphones are manufacturing more ruggedish devices. So where will it leave the often small specialised rugged computer manufacturers?

Traditional truly rugged mobile computer manufacturers such as Itronix, Trimble and Handheld have for decades been churning out truly rugged devices. However, they are not facing any threat from the large smartphone manufacturers because a new focus on consumers’ need for durable products will benefit the rugged mobile computer industry as they are best equipped to make truly rugged devices. 

The professional field worker will stick with the products from the specialist rugged mobile computer makers simply because the products are so much better while a ruggedish smartphone will not be able to handle the tough working environments experienced by field workers. Moreover, field professionals and their employers cannot compromise reliability or risk cost of downtime due to hardware malfunctions. If a rugged mobile computer is business critical, they will not choose a ruggedish computer.

There are several more reasons why the traditional rugged computer makers still have a strong position. It is very difficult to design and manufacture rugged mobile computers as it takes a lot of competence and experience that is not easy to acquire. Life cycle management is a key factor with rugged computer makers having a longer perspective on the products, as the focus is for the products to last for many years, regardless of style.

The rugged computer makers choose components with long life cycles, and the components are designed for industrial use. There is also an attractive ecosystem of accessories including vehicle cradles, chargers, docks and carry cases, many from independent suppliers.

The rugged computer makers have an existing sales and marketing network to distribute rugged mobile computers to the desired target groups. The rugged computer makers have existing and comprehensive service and support plans, which enable customers to speedily and cost-efficiently repair damaged smartphones and computers for several years after the purchase. 

In conclusion, there is definitely room for traditional cell phone manufacturers to offer more durable products to the mass market. But the truly specialised rugged computer makers will still be best equipped to supply truly rugged computers to everyone.

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