Dell Rugged media and analyst invitational September 2016 in Austin, Texas
by Conrad Blickenstorfer
Dell is best known as one of the world's top-three PC vendors, shipping tens of millions every year. Dell's also known for its recent acquisition of enterprise software and storage company EMC in what amounts to the largest technology merger in history. What is less well known is that Dell also makes rugged laptops, convertibles and tablets, those being the Latitude 12 and 14 Rugged Extreme, the Latitude 14 Rugged, and the Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet (lineup shown below).
In September 2016, RuggedPCReview had a chance to spend a couple of days at Dell in Austin, Texas, in a small gathering for media and analysts.
Austin is an interesting place. It's the capital of Texas, yet when most people think of Texas it's Dallas and Houston. Austin's population is close to a million, double what it was in the 1990s, and the city is a major high tech center, yet it promotes itself as "the Live Music Capital of the World." Dell put us up in the trendy Hotel Van Zandt in the city's historic Rainey Street district, and that alone tells a story.
Walking through Rainey Street in the morning before Dell picked us up was an experience. An old residential area between the Colorado River and Austin's downtown with its massive Convention Center, Rainey Street is part old-growth grove with little historic clapboard bungalows and part glitzy new construction. Most of the little old buildings are now bars and eateries of all kinds sitting between the old trees, giant agave plants and near-tropical lushness.
But there's also the spectacular Mexican American Cultural Center and you see new construction everywhere. There's a wonderful hike & bike trail along the wooded river banks. You can rent bicycles in automated stations by the hour. There are Teslas and Smart cars parked on the street, and also food trucks of all kinds. The folks at the Van Zandt said it was now very expensive to live in the Rainey Street district.
As for the colorful food trucks, they are started by people with new ideas. If they succeed, they may move into a bungalow and start a real restaurant, and it grows from there. That reminded me of Michael Dell selling PC parts from his dorm. He called his little operation "PC's Limited." Now it's Dell, a world class, multi-multi billion dollar company.
But we were here for business and presentations and to learn about Dell's latest and greatest, and that's usually conducted in airconditioned conference rooms. Except that Dell took us to Lake Travis, a picturesque reservoir on the north-western outskirts of Austin, fed by the Colorado River. There we boarded a house boat and headed over to Starnes Island in the middle of the lake.
Upon signing the usual releases required when on watercraft and sampling a delicious sandwich bar we got down to business. The shores of Starnes Island made for great field testing grounds of Dell's rugged laptops and tablets. Dell's fully rugged offerings carry IP65 sealing, so they are totally dustproof and can also handle water jets from all directions. Working in the muck and mud with Dell's rugged gear, no problem. Not even if someone accidentally throws a rugged Dell laptop, operating, off the boat.
Playing in the mud and dropping notebooks, however, was not the primary attraction. Jet skis were. Two big two-seaters were at our disposal, but this was not just for having fun. No, what was going to happen was that the folks from Dell partner CartoPac would strap some Dell rugged tablets onto the jet skis, loaded with their special software.
CartoPac is in the business of helping companies manage the risks and compliance issues associated with installing, operating and maintaining field assets. That means accurately recording location, description and condition of field assets, managing and tracking inspection and maintenance, all in the name of operational efficiency, safety and reporting.
Scott Crouch, co-founder of CartoPac and the company's CIO-CTO was on hand for a demonstration of CartoPac's positioning and tracking software. On a rugged Dell tablet. On a lake. On a jet ski.
Installing an Intel Broadwell-powered 3.6-pound ultra-rugged tablet computer on a jet ski isn't trivial, especially when the water crafts are just rentals and not equipped with any kind of vehicle mounting hardware. No problem though. A couple of yards of bungee cords, and the Dell tablet was firmly mounted between the jet ski's handle bars.
Next came the real challenge. Showing a bunch of land lubber media folks and analysts how a jet ski worked. No gas pedal or brakes there, really just a little flipper on the right handlebar to make the thing go. A warning here: do not stand behind a jet ski when a noobie is instructed on where the gas is. You WILL end up very wet.
Eventually, though, most of the braver of our little group got on the jet skis and took them for a ride. This provided an opportunity to see Dell's "Direct-View" outdoor-viewable display technology in action. It's obviously quite a challenge for a display to remain readable in broad sunlight, and facing the sky to boot. For an explanation of Dell's approach, see Dell Director of Rugged Technical Sales Patrick Seidensticker's article What Really Makes A Mobile Device Screen Readable Outdoors?.
In essence, keeping a display viewable under such conditions means reducing the number of layers as each surface reflects sunlight back at the user, or bonding layers together to eliminate surfaces. And it also means using anti-reflective (AR) and anti-glare (AG) coatings. These measures combined can make for impressive outdoor viewability even without a strong (read battery-draining) backlight. Is it going to be perfect? No, not with current technology. But it's good enough to get the job done.
The upshot of it all was that those who tried not only got an opportunity to ride a jet ski on a gorgeous lake, but also got to see how some of the technology that most of us only use in offices or perhaps in a lab works out there in the field, and even strapped onto such wild and crazy contraptions as jet skis.
When my turn came, I was a bit intimidated. It'd been decades since I had ridden a jet ski and that was back in the days when I still had a motorcycle. I didn't want to fall off, I didn't want to be the one who'd lose a Dell rugged tablet in the lake, and I wanted to take pictures and video while riding the jet ski. The captain of the houseboat advised against it and said that was not possible. One could not ride a jet ski and shoot video at the same time, maybe with a GoPro on one's head or helmet, but not with a handheld camera.
I did it anyway. Pictures, video and even some selfies with a Pentax WG-3 underwater camera in one hand, steering and gas with the other.
I didn't got too terribly fast, maybe 45 mph or so, and I didn't follow the course and position CartoPac's software displayed on the Dell tablet's screen. But it all worked and it worked quite well.
The jet ski, by the way, can go crazy fast if you open the throttle all the way. Which I didn't do. Even at 45 miles per hour, the jet ski, and thus whatever sits on it or is strapped onto it, takes a good pounding. The tablet, apparently, can easily handle that.
Time really flew. Between the jet skis, talking with the Dell and CartoPac representatives, socializing with colleagues, taking plenty of notes and pictures, and finally an awesome catered Salt Lick BBQ, our floating home was back at the VIP Marina before we knew it. And what a sunset.
We spent the night at the Travaasa Austin mountain resort. I had really looked forward to experience the venue "surrounded by the ancient live oaks and undulating hills of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve," as the Travaasa website said, but it was dark by the time we got there, and Dell picked us up early the next morning.
Before we retired for the night, though, we had the opportunity to see the latest in Alienware gaming laptops. Alienware, of course, is a Dell company, but Dell apparently lets them do what they do best while giving them the great advantage of having access to Dell's massive supply chain. The proud dad of a computer science student with a major in video game design at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I was more than impressed with the power and design of those Alienware gaming laptops, and greatly enjoyed talking with the Alienware reps.
But now we were headed to the Dell mothership at 1 Dell Way, Round Rock, Texas. There, in Building 7, is Dell's Global Command Center.
And the Global Command Center is as grand and impressive as it sounds. NASA Mission Control has nothing on it. If anything, Dell's is even more impressive. Maybe that's because staying on top of 113 million supported systems, 17 million annual dispatches and 500+ same day parts centers in over 160 countries, providing 24/7 support in 50+ languages is really quite a challenge. Completely different from what the NASA folks in Houston do, of course, but then again maybe not. When lives depend on Dell computers being up and running, failure, here too, is not an option.
Next came the Dell Technology Briefing Center on East Parmer Lane. Here, Drew Moore, Executive Director and General Manager of Rugged Mobility Products at Dell, Umang Patel, Product Manager and Marketer, Rugged Mobility, and Patrick Seidensticker presented an overview of Dell's journey in rugged computing technology that now goes back a full decade with their various ATG, XFR and now Rugged and Rugged Extreme systems.
Moore spoke of their approach and what has proved to be a formula for success for them: 1) Leverage the resources of Dell's Latitude family with its vast testing, vast number of units produced and sold, imaging, deployment tools, supply chain and scale. 2) Make the rugged products rugged from Day One with full emphasis on stability, reliability, and elimination of everything that might go wrong or cause problems. 3) Take full advantage of Dell IP and know-how whenever and wherever it benefits the rugged product line.
Moore also presented findings of TBR (Technology Business Research, Inc.) that showed very favorable results in customer satisfaction, frequency of failure and various other criteria compared to competition in the rugged notebook and tablet space.
Unexpectedly, we were treated to a surprise visit by Dell Vice Chairman Jeff Clarke who engaged in Q&A with our group and asked for our input, which resulted in some very direct and frank discussion. It's not every day that one gets to make suggestions to the Vice Chairman of a major technology company.
There was interesting discussion of perceived vulnerability of market leader Panasonic by some analysts, and what that means to Dell, whose market share in the rugged space has been growing. Discussion included branding and product lineup strategies, how having rugged products opens new venues and markets for Dell, and the pros and cons of broad product lines versus more narrowly focused ones.
Next we moved into an adjacent building in the Technology Center that houses Dell's rugged testing lab, or what we here at RuggedPCReview call the "torture chamber." This is where rugged products are dropped, baked, frozen, dunked, and their parts and components exercised to the breaking point.
Moore pointed out that Dell's testing lab was very much an engineering lab designed for demonstrations, comparative analysis, component testing, and empirical evaluation. Having test facilities inhouse also helps finding potential problem spots and issues during the design process, and not only after the fact.
Actual MIL-STD, IEC and hazardous location ruggedness testing and certifications are conducted by independent 3rd party labs.
As is, Dell's lab is equipped to perform drop tests, water spray tests, stress tests on hinges, extreme temperature testing, performance testing under extreme thermal stress, dust protection testing, hosing with a high-pressure water jet, and plenty more.
This concluded a very informative two days at Dell. You can gather almost any information online these days, no need for time-consuming travel. But there are times when there is no substitute for actual being there, actual hands-on, and meeting the people who actually make, market, support and manage the products.
RuggedPCReview.com thanks the Dell Rugged team for making this event possible.