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November 21, 2011

Ruggedized Android devices -- status and outlook

As far as operating system platforms go, the rugged mobile computing industry is in a bit of a holding pattern these days. Thanks to the massive success of the iPhone and iPad there is a big opportunity for more durable handhelds and tablets that can handle a drop and a bit of rain, yet are as handy and easy to use as an iPhone or iPad-style media tablet.. On the tablet side, a lot of enterprises like the iPad form factor and ease of use, but they need something a bit tougher and more sturdy than an iPad or a similar consumer product. On the smartphone side, hundreds of millions use them now and expect the same elegance and functionality in the handhelds they use on the job. But again, those professional handhelds need to hold up to abuse and accidents better than your standard consumer smartphone.

So with dozens and perhaps hundreds of millions of Android smartphones sold, and tens of millions of iPads, why are the likes of Lowe's home improvement center equipping their employees with tens of thousands of iPhones instead of presumably more suitable ruggedized handhelds (see Bloomberg article)? And why do we see iPads being sold into enterprise deployments that used to be the exclusive province of rugged tablets? There isn't one easy answer.

On the tablet side, it almost looks like the enterprise seems to want iPads and nothing else. Which is a problem for anyone who isn't Apple as the iOS is proprietary and Android-based tablets simply haven't caught on yet. That may be due to the perception that Android is really a phone operating system, or potential customers are befuddled over the various versions of the Android OS.

On the handheld side where Android has successfully established itself as the primary alternative to the iPhone, it would seem to be easy to offer Android-based ruggedized smartphones and handhelds. But there, too, the majority of recent product introductions still used the by now ancient Windows Mobile, an OS that looked and felt old nearly a decade ago.

So what gives? A few things.

With tablets, the almost shocking lack of success of Android and other alternate OS tablets has had a cold shower effect. If neither Motorola Mobility (Xoom) nor RIM (Playbook) nor Hewlett Packard (TouchPad, Slate 500) can do it, who can? And then there's Microsoft's promise to finally getting it right on tablets with the upcoming Windows 8. That's far from certain, but in a generally conservative industry where almost everything is Microsoft, the usual Microsoft leverage/investment/integration arguments carry weight.

With handhelds and smartphones, it's harder to understand because non-Microsoft platforms have traditionally been far more successful, and in the era of apps, software leverage hardly matters anymore. Perhaps it's Microsoft's heavy-handed forcing Android vendors into paying them, and not Google, royalties. Perhaps it's some sort of fear not to stray too far into uncharted waters. It's hard to say. Almost everyone I talk in the industry admits, off the record, to keeping a very close eye on Android developments.

So that all said, where do we stand with respects to Android-based products in the vertical/industrial markets where durability, ruggedness and return-on-investment and total-cost-of-ownership matter?

In tablets, there have been two recent introductions. One is the Motorola Solutions ET1, a small 7-inch display ruggedized enterprise tablet. It's based on a TI OMAP4 processor and runs Android 2.3.4, i.e. one of the "non-tablet" versions. The ET1 was said to be available in Q4 of 2011. RuggedPCReview reported on the device here. The other notable introduction is the Panasonic Toughpad, introduced in November of 2011, but not available until the spring of 2012. The Panasonic Toughpad is a Marvell-powered device with a 10.1-inch screen and runs Android 3.2. Both devices seem to be what a lot of enterprise customers have been waiting for: more durable versions of consumer media tablets, fortified for enterprise use with beefed-up security, service and durability without sacrificing slenderness, low weight and ease-of-use.

On the handheld side, we've also come across some potentially interesting products. The first is the ADLINK TIOT2000 (see our report), a conventional resistive touch handheld with a QVGA display. What's interesting here is that ADLINK offers a visually identical version, the TIOT9000 (see here) that runs Windows CE, with the Android version using a Qualcomm 7227T processor and the Windows CE version a Marvell PXA310. Winmate just introduced its E430T, an industrial PDA with a large 4.3-inch display that uses capacitive touch. This machine uses a Texas Instruments DM3730 processor and is said to be able to run Android 2.3 or Windows Mobile 6.5. I've also seen Android listed as an alternate OS on some of Advantech's embedded modules, including the TI OMAP 3530-based PCM-C3500 Series (see here).

On the surface, it would seem to be almost a no-brainer to cash in on the great public interest in tablets/smartphones and the opportunity a new-era OS such as Android provides. But nothing is ever as easy as it seems.

For example, there's a big difference between traditional rugged tablets that usually either have very precise digitizer pens or a resistive touch screen (or often both), and iPad class devices that use capacitive touch that lets you do all that tapping and panning and pinching, but generally doesn't work in the rain or under adverse conditions. The same issue exists on the handheld side where the traditional Windows Mobile is clearly designed for use with a passive stylus and cannot easily take advantage of capacitive multi-touch. That has, however, not stopped Casio from introducing the IT-300 that has a capacitive multi-touch display, yet runs Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 (see our report).

So it's all a bit of a mystery. The transition to new operating platforms is never easy and often traumatic, and there are good arguments for being cautious. For example, in addition to leverage, one of the big arguments for Windows CE/Windows Mobile has always been the wealth of existing software. True, but in a world of tens of thousands of often very slick and sophisticated iOS and Android apps, it's hard to believe developers wouldn't quickly come up with the appropriate versions and apps.

With tablets, the situation must be quite frustrating for manufacturers of rugged mobile devices. They undoubtedly see a great opportunity to cash in on the tablet boom, but they are to a degree caught between needing to support the existing Windows XP/Windows 7 infrastructure and deciding what to move to next. Microsoft is cleverly dangling a (for them) no-lose carrot in the form of Windows 8's Metro interface where ARM-based devices would only run Metro and have no access to "classic" Windows whereas for X86-compatible devices, Metro would just be the front end. So there are three potential success strategies: Android, Metro-based ARM devices, and X86 tablets that run Metro and classic windows. No one can support all three.

So for now, as far as rugged tablets and handhelds go, it's the best of times and it's the worst of times.

Posted by conradb212 at 04:42 PM | Comments (0)

November 02, 2011

Windows 8: a bit of fear, uncertainty and doubt

In mid-September 2011, Microsoft showcased a preview of the next release of Windows at the BUILD developer conference. After reading up on it, I wrote the below in the days following the preview, but held off putting it in the RuggedPCReview blog until I had a bit more time to let it sink in and contemplate the likely impact on rugged mobile computing manufacturers and users. My thinking hasn't changed, so below is pretty much what were my first impressions.

Essentially, Microsoft is offering a touch-optimized front end on the next version of Windows. For ARM devices, the new front end is mandatory, for X86 devices it is not. That's probably not to expose itself to charges that even on ARM devices, classic Windows just doesn't work very well.

What's a bit puzzling is that Microsoft called Windows 8 "touch-first." I have to assume that refers to the Metro interface only because having all of Windows touch-first would make most existing hardware essentially obsolete, as touch is neither available nor feasible on most desktops and notebooks. If all of Windows 8 would be touch-first, how would people take to a user interface designed for touch when they are sitting in front of a desktop?

So Microsoft is basically hedging its bets in the tablet space, just as it has before when rival platforms began getting to much attention. Witness...

In 1991, Microsoft grafted pen extensions on top of Windows 3.1 and called it Windows for Pen Computing. It was a miserable flop, but created enough FUD to stall and kill rivaling efforts (remember that even the original ThinkPad ran PenPoint and every major computer company had a pen tablet).

In 1995, Microsoft grafted the Pen Extensions onto Windows 95, but essentially left it up to hardware manufacturers to make them work and support them.

In 2001, Microsoft grafted pen functionality onto Windows XP and called it the XP Tablet PC Edition, forcing most hardware manufacturers to create products for it.

In 2009, Microsoft added a bit of touch functionality and made it available in Windows 7, proclaiming the OS -- successfully marketed as a rock solid new platform when it to most users it really looked like Vista done right -- as touch enabled.

In each case, Microsoft's effort created enough FUD to either derail efforts or at least drive OEMs to support them to some extent.

Now there'll be Windows 8 and once again Microsoft is attempting to ward off a challenge and remain relevant by integrating rival technology with just enough independent thinking to declare it its own.

So what is Microsoft doing? Think about it. Would Microsoft gamble its still commanding market position on suddenly converting everything to touch? When touch really only works on tablets? When almost all work is still done on desks sitting down? When billions use keyboards and mice? When even Apple is not suggesting touch is the be-all and end-all, and all of OSX and all Macs now work with touch only? When Microsoft just managed to convince the public that Windows 7 is new and solid? When unpleasant memories of Vista still linger? When almost everyone still remembers New Coke? When the idea of having tiles that summarize info from other apps has been tried (in WinMo) years ago? When the last thing IT wants is everyone having Facebook and Twitter built right in?

Let's be realistic here. What Microsoft is doing is nothing more than trying its Windows Everywhere approach one more time. By promising a new Windows that is so marvelous that nothing else is needed, not on tablets, not on the desktop. That hasn't worked in the past, and it will not work now. What Microsoft so far has shown is an updated version of Windows 7 with a new optional interface. The only new thing is that the interface will be mandatory on ARM-based devices. So that Microsoft won't get criticized again if the touch layer doesn't work well on tablets or just isn't enough to run Windows. This way Microsoft can always refer those who need "real" Windows to an X86 tablet and relegate or even abandon ARM devices should that not work out. If it does work out, great. If not, no big deal.

Now let's look at tablets specifically. Microsoft's primary argument for Windows on tablets is the leverage, legacy and compatibility proposition that says that corporate IT runs on Microsoft, all the software and software tools are Microsoft, developers know Microsoft, and there are trillions of Microsoft apps. Therefore, Windows based tablets will fit right in. Even if they are a little hard to operate.

Using the leverage argument, if Metro is indeed a mandatory new interface on ARM-based tablets, then out goes the legacy application argument for tablets. It'll have to be all new apps. And that transition will be as hard or harder than what Windows Mobile users encountered when it was end of the road with WinMo 6.5, and the was only the vague promise of an eventual move to a Phone 7 style system that was not backward compatible.

So then why not just stay with X86 and the option to run Windows Classic where all the software is and will be? That is going to be the big question. Also, it's been suggested that since developing for both ARM and X86 requires using the Metro UI, that means Metro will be the preferred environment. Will that mean Windows 8 users have to go back and forth between environments? Will we see "compatibility boxes" again?

There is, of course, always the chance that Microsoft will indeed be able to put forth a credible effort, just as it did with the Windows 7 follow-up to Vista. The Metro interface may just be so compelling that it can stem and turn the tide of what by its introduction may be several hundred million iPads and perhaps Android tablets. A tall order indeed.

So for now it's Microsoft generating a degree of fear, uncertainty and doubt among hardware manufacturers and corporate customers. It's wise move that was to be expected. And in time-honored Microsoft fashion, it's also a riskless bet where Plan B (Windows classic) is the safe perpetuation of the status quo.

What does it all mean to makers of mobile and rugged devices? It depends on how serious Microsoft is with the Metro UI and ARM hardware. At this point, mobile hardware either uses Windows Mobile, or Embedded Handheld whatever, or it's using Windows XP or Windows 7 on Core or Atom powered devices. It's hard to see much of a future of Atom powered hardware if ARM-based tablets and handhelds can run Metro faster with fewer resources. In fact, the only reason would be to be legacy compatible, and that is a rather major reason.

The next issue is touch. It's hard to imagine a next gen Windows not supporting a multi touch interface that uses projected capacitive technology. And that is precisely what the vertical market mobile computing industry currently says it doesn't want because capacitive touch can't handle rain, gloves, or other adverse conditions. And then there's the pen functionality for signature capture and such, or even handwriting recognition. How will pens work in a touch interface (remember, touch has never worked well in a pen interface)?

For a bit of testing, we installed Windows 8 on an older HP 2710p convertible Tablet PC. The install was easy and pretty much everything worked. From a cold start to Metro takes just under a minute. The HP tablet doesn’t have touch, but the installer recognized the pen just fine. All the swiping has to be done by pen. Clicking on the Start menu brought up Metro with its flat tiles. It all can be made to work somehow, but at this point I think the real question is whether Android can establish itself on tablets or not before Microsoft is ready with Windows 8.

Posted by conradb212 at 04:36 PM | Comments (0)