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May 30, 2012

Android finally getting traction in vertical and industrial markets?

Just when Windows 8 is looming ever larger as perhaps a credible competitor to iOS and the iPad, we're finally starting to see some Android action in vertical market tablets and handhelds. It's timid, exploratory action still, but nonetheless a sign that the industry may finally break out of the stunned disbelief as Apple was first selling millions and then tens of millions of iPads.

What has changed? Perhaps it's the fact that it's becoming increasingly harder to argue against Android as a serious platform now that Google's OS dominates the smartphone market. Though it seems more fragmented than ever, Android is now on hundreds of millions of smartphones, and all of them are little mobile computers much more than phones. The fragmentation is certainly an issue as is the large variety of mobile hardware Android runs on, but it's also a trend and sign of the time. Cisco recently published the results of a study which showed that 95% of the surveyed organizations allowed employee-owned devices, and more than a third provided full support for them. It's called the "Bring Your Own Device" syndrome, and for Cicso it was enough to ditch its own Cius tablet hardware. What it all means is that people will want to use what they own, know and like, and in tablets and handhelds that's iOS and Android.

There's also been movement on the legal front. Oracle had been suing Google for patent infringement over some aspects of Android, and since Oracle is a tenacious, formidable opponent in whatever they tackle, this cast a large shadow over Android. Well, Google won, for now at least, when a jury decided Google had not infringed on Oracle's patents.

So what are we seeing on the Android front?

Well, there's DRS Tactical Systems that just announced two new rugged tablets with 7-inch capacitive touch displays. They look almost identical, but they are, in fact, two very different devices. One runs Android, one Windows, and DRS made sure the hardware was fully optimized for each OS, with different processors, different storage and different controls. That's costly, and it shows that DRS sees Android as having just as much of a chance to be the platform of choice in mobile enterprise applications as does Windows.

There's Juniper Systems which revealed that its unique 5.7-inch Mesa Rugged Notepad will soon be available in an Android version called the RAMPAGE 6, courtesy of a partnership with Pennsylvania-based SDG Systems. The Juniper Mesa is powered by the ubiquitous Marvell PXA320 processor. If the Android version uses this same chip, we'd finally have an answer to the question whether the PXA processors that have been driving Pocket PCs and numerous industrial handhelds for a decade can run Android (we asked Marvell several times, to no avail).

The folks at ADLINK in Taiwan have been offering their TIOT handheld computer in two versions since late 2011; the TIOT 2000 runs Android, the identical-looking TIOT 9000 Windows CE. Here, though, the Android model runs on a Qualcomm processor whereas the Windows CE model has a Marvell PXA310.

General Dynamics Itronix has been playing with Android for a couple of years now, demonstrating their Android-based GD300 wearable computer to military and other customers. Panasonic introduced their Toughpad to great fanfare at Dallas Cowboy Stadium in November of 2011, but though the rather impressive tablet seemed ready back then, it actually won't start shipping until summer of 2012. Motorola Solutions also announced an Android tablet late in 2011, but I am not sure if the ET1 Enterprise Tablet is in customer hands yet.

Mobile computing industry veterans may recall that there was a similarly confusing era several technology lifetimes ago: back in the early 1990s the upstart PenPoint OS platform came on so strong that several major hardware companies, including IBM, shipped their tablets with PenPoint instead of Microsoft's unconvincing pen computing overlay for Windows. Microsoft, of course, eventually won that battle, but Microsoft's "win" also demoted tablets back into near irrelevance for another decade and a half. Will it be different this time around? No one knows. Microsoft dominates the desktop, as was the case back then. But unlike PenPoint which despite its hype was known only to a few, hundreds of millions are already familiar with Android.

The next six months will be interesting.

Posted by conradb212 at 10:10 PM | Comments (0)

May 02, 2012

The widening gulf between consumer and vertical market handhelds

Almost everyone has a smartphone these days. Smartphones are selling by the tens of millions every quarter. In Q1 of 2012, Apple and Samsung sold over 30 million smartphones each. Smartphones have become part of modern life. Everyone is tapping, pinching and zooming. Everyone except those who need a rugged smartphone. Because there isn't one.

Now to be fair, there are rugged smartphones and any number of ruggedized handhelds that add phone functionality to a handheld computer that can also scan and do all the things people who work in the field need to do on the job. Except, they really aren't smartphones. Not in the way consumers have come to expect smartphones to be. Why is that?

Because ever since 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone, there's been a widening gulf between consumer phones and the devices people use at work. Before the iPhone, cellphones had a bit of rudimentary web functionality and a number of basic apps. Nothing was standardized and everyone rolled their own. Professional handhelds almost all ran Windows Mobile, which had had very good phone functionality as early as 2002. But Windows Mobile never really took off in the consumer market.

Why did the iPhone change everything? Because it introduced a fluid, elegant way of using and interacting with the phone that resonated with people and made total sense. Almost no one wants to first pull out a plastic stylus to then operate a clumsy mini version of a desktop OS. But just lightly tapping at a screen, drag things around, and effortlessly zoom in on what was too small on a tiny phone display, that's an entirely different story. One that Google quickly copied with Android, and one that Microsoft did not, or not until it was too late.

As a result, smartphones took off on a massive scale, one much grander than anyone had anticipated. And it was the sheer, simple elegance and functionality of just having to lightly tap, swipe, pinch and zoom that did it. Which, in turn, came from Apple's primary stroke of genius, that of using capacitive multi touch.

The rest is history. Since 2007, Apple's sold hundreds of millions of iPhones. And there are hundreds of millions of Android smartphones, with vendors selling Android-based smartphones combined having a larger market share than Apple.

With all of this happening and perhaps half a billion handhelds being sold in just five short years, how did the vertical market respond? How did it benefit from the riches, the opportunities, the breakthrough in acceptance of handheld technology that the vertical market had been waiting for?

It didn't.

Ruggedized handhelds still run Windows Mobile in a form virtually unchanged from the days before Android and the iPhone. There is no multi-touch. There is no effortless tapping and panning and pinching and zooming. There is no apps store (there was one, but Microsoft closed it).

And worse, there is no upgrade path. Windows Mobile, which Microsoft merged into its embedded systems group a while ago, seems frozen in time. But isn't there Windows Phone 7, that's now Phone 7.5 and is currently heavily promoted with the launch of the Nokia Lumina 900 smartphone? There is, but Windows Phone is totally different from Windows Mobile. There is no upgrade path. And even if there were, it's a market where there are already half a billion iPhones and Android smartphones, and people who know how to use them and who expect nothing less. Not in their personal lives, and not on the job.

That is a definite problem for those in the market of making and selling ruggedized handhelds. And the problem is not demand. With the world now pretty much convinced that handheld computing and communication devices are tremendously useful and will only become more so, no one needs to be sold on the merits of handheld technology on the job. Everyone knows that already.

The problem is that the business market now wants smartphones that are a little (or even a lot) tougher than a consumer phone, and perhaps can do a few things consumer phones don't do so well, like scanning. But the market wants that extra toughness and those extra capabilities without giving up the elegant, effortless user interface, the bright high-res displays, and the ability to take pictures and HD movies so good that consumer smartphones are now replacing dedicated digital cameras.

And that's why it is becoming increasingly difficult to sell handhelds that offer technology and functionality that is by now very dated by consumer smartphone standards. Sure, the technology and functionality of most ruggedized handhelds are as good and better as they were six years ago, but the world has changed. Sure, the vaunted Microsoft leverage argument ("You use Microsoft in your business, so Windows Mobile fits right in and you can leverage your existing investment") still applies. But that is no longer enough. Businesses who need to equip their workers with rugged handhelds now want more.

But isn't the mere popularization of handheld technology enough to make rugged technology vendors make a good living? Perhaps. It all depends on the type of business and its inherent profitability. But is basically standing still a good business strategy in a technology boom measuring in the hundreds of millions of consumer handhelds? And are the largely flat financials of rugged handheld makers not a warning sign?

There are many possible scenarios. For example, perhaps we're seeing a total separation of consumer and vertical markets, one where consumer handhelds get ever more powerful while much more rugged vertical market computers pursue a small niche where they simply won't ever be challenged by consumer technology. And perhaps Microsoft will manage to somehow leverage a successful unified Windows 8 Metro-style user interface into handhelds that can become the true successor of Windows Mobile, with whatever benefits customers see in remaining within the Microsoft fold. And perhaps there really is an insurmountable challenge in making capacitive multi-touch suitable for rugged applications (this is often voiced as a reason, though I can't quite see it).

But there are also darker scenarios that bode less well for the verticals. If consumer phones aren't tough enough or don't have certain peripherals, third parties may simply make rugged cases and enclosures to make them tough, and sleeves and caddies to add whatever functionality business customers want. Without losing the performance and capabilities of a consumer smartphone. In that case, what could and should have been a golden opportunity for vertical and industrial handheld makers might simply vanish as consumer technology eats their lunch.

As is, it's become somewhat painful to see vertical market companies struggle, companies that know so well how to make products that hold up under trying circumstances, products that don't leak, products with displays that can be read in bright sunlight, products that will last years rather than months, and products that are tailor-made so well for very specific needs. Those companies have a lot of valuable expertise and so much going for them.

But will all that be enough to mask and make up for an increasingly wider gulf between vertical market and consumer market technology? Only time can tell, and it may be running out.

Posted by conradb212 at 04:59 PM | Comments (0)