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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 November 21, 2011 04:42 PM