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An evolving market: Through changes in the mobile market, rugged devices have weathered the storm

  • Scott Solomon By

The Oxford English Dictionary defines rugged as “strongly made and capable of withstanding rough handling.” That’s not far from how many rugged mobile device makers would define their products. According to VDC Research, rugged is a market in transition, expected to witness slow and steady growth over the next few years.

For the enterprise mobility market, the term rugged isn’t an adjective. It’s a market category that cannot be defined with a single dictionary entry.

The enterprise rugged device market, once limited to durable devices used in warehouses, has expanded to include several classifications of devices, “Originally rugged came from a need for mobile devices to withstand daily operations in harsh environments commonly referred to as ‘inside the four walls’ such as warehousing, manufacturing plants and distribution centers,” says AirWatch’s Director of Rugged Sales Dietmar Doehring. But the demand for rugged devices “outside the four walls” led to the development of even tougher and more agile devices – think the delivery man’s device of the 1990’s.

What most people think of as rugged devices today can withstand more extreme, outdoor conditions. “They may be used outside in July in Singapore and then in the winter during a Monsoon,” explains Barry Issberner, Motorola Solutions’ head of enterprise product marketing, who says his business has seen a rise in a third category: ultra-rugged devices. “Some customers need devices that they can literally leave in their cold storage environments, or outside in continuous Arctic conditions,” Issberner says.

Bridging the Innovation Gap

According to VDC Research, the most successful rugged device vendors will embrace consumerization. “While the need for rugged devices to support many business and mission critical processes remains strong, we feel there is a clear need for rugged vendors to reinstate their value proposition in the context of increased pressure from consumer devices with more modern OS platforms and addressing the perceived innovation gap,” said the research firm’s VP of enterprise mobility David Krebs in a press release.

Windows Mobile has been the reigning rugged operating system for years, but the introduction of Windows 8 Embedded, a flexible operating system based on Windows 8, is still a work in progress. Though manufacturers haven’t abandoned rugged-specific operating systems, many have added devices that run on Android to their product lines.

For Motorola Solutions, it isn’t a question of Windows or Android – it’s an “enthusiastic YES to both.” says Issberner, who says it’s been a “fast and dramatic shift in market acceptance of Android.” This acceptance is partly due to Android’s commanding position in the consumer smartphone market. As the market grows and customer needs change, so too does the operating system.

“Today, almost everyone owns a smartphone or tablet device,” says Doehring. “Just like anything that is manufactured over time, designs get better and improve from user experience.”

Rugged devices are looking more and more like consumer devices, which Doehring says begs the question: “Will consumer smartphones ever meet all the business needs that a good rugged device has to offer?”

“Who knows, but for today there are plenty of places that require a rugged device.” And Issberner agrees. “The great news about the rugged industry is that it is growing at some level in every industry,” says Issberner. Businesses across industries are mobilizing – and rugged devices are the key to mobile access and enablement in environments where smartphones aren’t tough enough.

Hardware advances have made today’s devices both sturdier and lighter and able to withstand harsh environments for six to 10 years. “Our most current handheld systems often weigh about what just the battery did from our designs of just a few years ago, and they are very close physically to cutting-edge consumer grade designs without making catastrophic long-term reliability tradeoffs,” says Issberner.

There’s further evidence that the consumer and rugged markets are colliding – consumers are now demanding similar toughness in their smartphones. “This evolution is causing device manufacturers to make their consumer smartphones and tablets tougher and in some cases rugged-esque.”

But significant distinctions will likely remain. “Think of the big bulky protective cases,” and new stronger materials used in smartphone manufacturing, says Doehring. “But how many times have you cracked or shattered your screen?” Rugged devices provide built-in protection without adding the extra weight of a case, an important consideration for field employees.

What’s next for rugged?

Rugged manufacturers will likely continue to take cues from trends in the consumer market. “We see new wearable opportunities opening up,” says Issberner. Motorola recently introduced a smart badge for retail and a head-mounted display for field services. The company is also developing a mountable “supertablet” that will let customers in stores, restaurants or hotels search for products and services “and get their questions answered via text, voice and even video chat systems.”

“Frankly, these are sometimes experiments,” says Issberner, “but it helps us better understand long-term needs in a market.” And those needs aren’t likely to go away anytime soon – IDC research predicts steady growth over the next two years.

The days of the green screen and big buttons are over. Rugged devices are sleeker, slimmer, lighter, and offer users an experience that rivals their consumer counterparts – and a strength that sets them apart.

Scott Solomon

Scott Solomon

Scott Solomon is an Atlanta native and University of Georgia graduate who has spent the past six years studying technology, though his passion for the subject has been lifelong.

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