The tablets and handhelds listed in the righthand column on this page are the first rugged/vertical market devices available with Android. Android is the operating system platform that successfully emulated Apple's ground-breaking iOS with its capacitive multi-touch interface that allowed for effortless panning, zooming, rotating, etc., Apple's "apps" infrastructure, and even the hardware and software layout of Apple products.
Android, however, is no mere copy. It came from people who knew a lot about mobile operating systems. The man behind the project was Andy Rubin who had worked at Apple, Magic Cap, WebTV and then Danger, where they developed the HipTop internet phone. Google bought Android in 2005 and the platform is now handled by the Open Handset Alliance. In just a few years, Android has become the dominant smartphone OS. Android had a tougher job on the tablet side where it still trails the Apple iPad by a considerable margin.
Android offers a number of opportunities and challenges.
The opportunity lies in the fact that Android has managed to become the de-facto standard in non-Apple smartphones. Hundreds of millions already know how to use Android devices, sharply reducing training needs. And Google is offering the use of Android for free. In price-sensitive markets, not having to pay a license fee can make or break a product.
Among Android's challenges are fragmentation and legal issues. Fragmentation is a problem because it makes the Android market nowhere near as cohesive as it appears to be, with platforms being left behind, developers forced to adapt to multiple versions, and so on. Among legal issues are Microsoft's success in extracting license fees from Android vendors, the (by now largely defused) Oracle patent infringement lawsuit against Google, and seemingly endless suits between Apple and major Android vendors.
Overall, while the operating platform race appears to have been run in consumer smartphones, it's still unclear which OS will come out on top in mobile computing on the handheld and on the tablet sides. For high-end tablets, Windows 7 and 8 still look like a good and safe bet. For ruggedized versions of consumer media tablets, a lot will depend on the iPad's staying power as well as on whether or not Microsoft's ARM tablet plans come to fruition. It also depends on whether developers and customers will trust Android as a reliable, dependable platform.
As is, as of mid-2013 we are now seeing a small but steady increase in Android based mobile device introductions. In some instances, manufacturers are still hedging their bets by offering the devices either with Android or with a Microsoft OS. Mobile computing historians may recall a similar situation some 20 years ago when, until Microsoft prevailed, pen computers were offered with either PenPoint or Windows for Pen Computing.
The background of Android's vertical market emergence
For many years, almost all vertical, enterprise and industrial market tablets were running some version of Microsoft Windows. Even when new consumer market PCs were sold with Windows 7, in the vertical markets tablets and notebooks were still offered with a variety of Microsoft operating systems. There were XP Professional, the XP Tablet PC Edition, Vista, and Windows 7. Some came with Windows 7, but also had a XP Tablet PC Edition "downgrade" option.
On the handheld side of things, the situation was (and as of mid-2013 still is) also a bit complicated and uncertain. That's because while the great majority of all consumer smartphones run either iOS or Android, virtually all vertical market handhelds still run one version of Windows Mobile or another. The current problem is that Windows Mobile 6.1 was really the last version of Windows Mobile that worked well with conventional rugged handhelds. There is the newer Windows Mobile 6.5 version that looks more like the iPhone and also the Zune (RIP) music player, but underneath the new menus, things haven't changed much.
Things became even more complicated when Windows Phone 7.x turned out to be totally consumer-oriented and not backward-compatible with older Windows Mobile applications. And all Windows Phone 7 devices had to have a capacitive touch screen, and that meant no gloves. So Windows Phone 7 clearly was not the future for industrial handhelds.
To further complicate matters, Microsoft moved the Windows Mobile group into the Windows Embedded business, and made it separate from Windows Phone 7. So for now, we still have Windows Mobile 6.5 (also known as Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5) as well as Windows Embedded Compact 7. Next will be Windows Phone 8, but that will be incompatible not only with the old Windows Mobile, but also with Windows Phone 7.x.
At this point, it is unclear what impact Windows Phone 8 will have on the vertical mobile handheld market. The new OS is a clean break with anything that came before it, and also shares components with Windows 8.
--Conrad H. Blickenstorfer