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March 10, 2008

Keeping track of who makes (and sells) what

Keeping RuggedPCReview.com updated is no easy task. In the olden days, when we started Pen Computing Magazine back in 1993, there were only a small handful of companies that offered ruggedized equipment. These days, a even giant companies like Dell are realizing that adding durable and ruggedized equipment makes a lot of sense. I mean, in a mobile world not everyone is well-served with a flimsy, plasticky notebook that can't handle the potential abuse during a day on the job.

Anyway, keeping track of things... Not only is it quite a job to stay on top of every tech upgrade (and with Intel adding and changing processors every few weeks those come hot and heavy), it's often even more difficult figuring out who makes what and where it's being sold. For many years now, most notebooks sold in the world have been made by a fairly small number of Taiwanese and, increasingly, Chinese OEMs. For a while we licensed Pen Computing Magazine to a publishing company in Taiwan and I had a chance to go to Taipei to see them and also make a presentation on Tablet PCs in the Taipei International Convention Center. My hosts arranged for interviews with most of the major OEMs, such as Compal, Quanta, Mitac, FIC, Tatung and so on. That was very informative, but it's difficult to keep track of the ever-changing alliances between OEMs, ODMs, resellers, partners and customers.

So what does that mean for all the hundreds of rugged products listed and described at RuggedPCReview.com? Most are manufactured, though not necessarily designed, by an OEM in Taiwan. Many are joint productions where a computer company designs a product and then has it built by an OEM. Or the various aspects of design are divided in some way. Or a product is available from several vendors, but is customized for particular markets for different vendors. Sometimes there are exclusives. Other times the same machine is sold under different labels. There are also cases where an OEM sells a product under its own name, but that same product is also sold by other companies under different labels. This whole big supply chain means that there are many different ways of working together.

As for us here at RuggedPCReview.com, we always try to know who exactly makes a product. That's primarily so that we can state facts. If a product is really good, we'd like to know who deserves the praise. It makes no sense to heap praise on an OEM when the design actually comes from elsewhere. Or, the other way around, celebrate the genius of a reseller when they really did not design the product at all.

But that's not all of it. Another problem for us is that larger resellers do not necessarily offer the same machines in all markets. This morning, for example, I updated some product listings and realized that some of the old Dolch products were still listed under Kontron, the German company that had taken over Dolch in February of 2005. We had often marveled at Dolch's various rugged platforms at industry tradeshows and were bit saddened to see them get absorbed. After all, Dolch had been building rugged machines since 1987. So we relisted whatever Kontron took over as Kontron machines and added new contact information. Kontron had also created a new website, kontronmobile.com.

At the time, Kontron's CEO was quoted as saying, "This investment presents an excellent opportunity for Kontron to further expand its embedded computer solutions in the USA and Europe on mobile platforms for government and defense programs." Well, apparently it was not such a great opportunity after all as Kontron's US website now states, "Thank you for your interest in mobile rugged computing. This line of products was recently acquired by Azonix, a division of Crane Company." Azonix so happens to be a division of Crane, a multinational with over 10,000 employees. Azonix Corporation is located in Billerica Massachusetts and was set up in 1981 as a design and manufacturing firm specializing in rugged, high-precision measurement and control products. Some of the former Dolch/Kontron products are now part of the Asonix Military Grade Solutions product lineup, in competition with the likes of DRS Tactical and General Dynamics.

The Dolch/Kontron/Asonix NotePAC, however, looked familiar to me and it turns out to be a GETAC machine, the A790. On a hunch I go to the German Kontron website and it turns out that Kontron continues to sell rugged notebooks in that, and other, markets, just not in the US. In fact, the German Kontron lineup does not hide its GETAC origins. They have a whole line of Kontron NotePACs, all carrying the same model numbers as the corresponding GETAC machines.

Nothing wrong with all that, of course. It's just another example of how everything is going global. But after all is said and done, customers need to know who they can call if they need service and support. And then it is good to know they're dealing with a reliable, competent company that doesn't just slap a badge on a machine and pushes it out the door. In the end, it is that support and that local connection that matters and factors in big in that holy grail of vertical market mobile computing, the Total Cost of Ownership.

Posted by conradb212 at March 10, 2008 06:48 PM

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