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April 24, 2013

Itronix RIP

Last week, as I came to a stop at a red light, a police car stopped in the lane next to me. What immediately caught my eye was an expertly mounted rugged notebook computer, angled towards the driver. It was a GD-Itronix rugged notebook, probably a GD6000 or GD8200, with an elegant matte-silver powder-coated insert on top of the magnesium alloy computer case that prominently featured the "General Dynamics" brand name. The officer perused the screen, then looked up, and briefly our eyes met. He had no idea how well I knew that computer in his car, and the one that came before it, and the one before that.

I began following Itronix in the mid-1990s when their rugged notebooks still carried the X-C designation that stood for "Cross Country." Around that time, Itronix purchased British Husky and with that came the FEX21, and since Windows CE was starting to come on strong in smaller rugged devices, Itronix also introduced the tough little T5200 clamshell. I remember a call with Itronix in 1996 or so when I was watching my infant son in the office for an hour or two while his mom was shopping. The little guy was not happy and screamed his head off the entire time I was on the phone with Matt Gerber who told me not to worry as he had a couple of young kids himself. I remember hoping he didn't think we were running a monkey operation.

Around the turn of the millennium, Itronix in a clear challenge to Panasonic's rugged, yet stylish Toughbooks, launched the GoBook. It was a clean, elegant, impressive machine with such cool features as a waterproof "NiteVue" keyboard with phosphorescent keys, and seamless, interference-shielded integration of a variety of radio options. I was impressed.

That first GoBook would quickly evolve into larger, more powerful versions and then spawn a whole line of GoBook branded rugged notebooks, tablets and interesting new devices such as the GoBook MR-1 that measured just 6 x 4.5 inches, yet brought full Windows in a super-rugged 2.5-pound package to anyone who needed the whole Windows experience in such a small device. On the big boy side came the impressive GoBook II, then III, and then "Project Titan," the incomparable GoBook XR-1. At the time we said that it had "raised the bar for high performance rugged notebooks by a considerable margin. It has done so by offering a near perfect balance of performance, versatility, ruggedness and good industrial design." High praise indeed, and totally deserved.

Itronix also branched out into the vehicle market with the semi-rugged GoBook VR-1 and into tablets with first the GoBook Tablet PC and then the GoBook Duo-Touch that combined both a touchscreen and an active digitizer into one small but rugged package. But even that wasn't all. With the introduction of the GoBook VR-2 came DynaVue, a truly superior new display technology that just blew my mind. Tim Hill and Marie Hartis had flown down from Spokane to demonstrate DynaVue on the new VR-2, and both could hardly contain their excitement. DynaVue ended up revolutionizing rugged systems display technology with a very clever combination of layering of filters and polarizers, and its approach became the basis of outdoor-viewable display technology still in use today.

I'll never forget a factory tour of the Itronix main facility in Spokane, meeting and speaking with some of the most dedicated engineers, designers, product planners and marketing people in the industry. I visited their ruggedness testing (I always called it "torture testing") lab which rivaled what I had seen at Intermec and at Panasonic in Japan. I spoke with their service people, the folks on the shop floor and with management. What a talented and enthusiastic group of people. The sky seemed the limit. (See report of the 2006 Spokane factory tour)

But change was brewing. Itronix's stellar performance had attracted suitors, and giant defense contractor General Dynamics, then a US$20 billion company with some 70,000 staff, felt Itronix would nicely complement and enhance its already massive roster of logistics, computing and military hardware. The sale had come as no surprise. Everyone knew it was eventually going to happen. Equity investment firm Golden Gate Capital had purchased Itronix in 2003 from former parent Acterna with the intent of prepping Itronix for a sale. Within just two years, Itronix prospered enough to make it a lucrative proposition for General Dynamics. Within Itronix, the hope was that the sheer mention of the name "General Dynamics" would open doors.

In our GoBook VR-1 review we cautiously offered that "the change in ownership will be both a challenge and a tremendous opportunity for Itronix."

Turns out we were right about the challenge part. The "GoBook" was quickly dropped in favor of a GDxxxx nomenclature, and with it the laboriously earned GoBook brand equity. There were attempts to somehow merge another GD acquisition, Tadpole, into Itronix, and that turned out to be difficult. No one seemed to know what to expect. And then the hammer fell.

In early 2009, General Dynamics announced it would phase out the Itronix computer manufacturing and service facility in Spokane, Washington and operate the business out of Sunrise, Florida where the company's C4 Systems division had an engineering facility instead. It was a terrible blow for Spokane, where losing Itronix meant the loss of almost 400 jobs. And the cross-country move meant Itronix lost most of what had made Itronix the vibrant company it had been.

It was never the same after that. On the surface things continued to look good for a while. There seemed a cohesive product line with GD2000, GD3000, GD4000, GD6000 and GD8000 rugged computing families. But from an editorial perspective, we were now dealing with people who didn't seem to know very much about the rugged computing business at all. And there no longer seemed a direction. Some of the final products were simply rebadged products from other companies. Eventually, there was mostly silence.

In January 2013, I was told that "after in-depth market research and analysis, we have determined that it is in the best interests of our company, customers and partners to phase out a number of our General Dynamics Itronix rugged computing products." In April 2013 came the end: "Itronix has phased out all products."

That's very sad. A once great company gone. Could it have been different? Perhaps. But Itronix was often fighting against the odds. Even in its heydays, Itronix primarily worked with Taiwanese OEMs whereas its major competitors at Panasonic and Getac controlled their entire production process. In addition, while its location in Spokane was a calming constant, Itronix ownership was forever in flux. Itronix was started in 1989 as a unit of meter-reading company Itron to make rugged handheld computers. It was spun off from Itron in 1992, then sold to rugged computer maker Telxon in 1993. In 1997, telecom testing gear company Dynatech Corp. bought Itronix from Telxon for about $65 million. Dynatech changed its name to Acterna in 2000, but fell on hard times and sold Itronix to private equity firm Golden Gate Capital in 2003 for just US$40 million in cash. Golden Gate held on to it for a couple of years before General Dynamics came along. -- The band Jefferson Starship comes to mind here, with Grace Slick charging "Someone always playing corporation games; Who cares they're always changing corporation names..."

Perhaps there could have been a management buyout. Perhaps the City of Spokane could have helped. But that didn't happen, and though in hindsight it seems like a natural, there are always reasons why things happen the way they happen.

As is, there once was a superbly innovative company called Itronix, and they did good. I will miss them, and so probably will everyone interested in rugged computing equipment. I bet the police officer I saw with his Itronix laptop will, too.

Posted by conradb212 at April 24, 2013 06:52 PM

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