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May 28, 2013

Rugged notebooks: challenges and opportunities

I've been working on setting up our new rugged notebook comparison tool over the past few days. So far, the tool, where users can compare the full specs of up to three rugged notebooks side-by-side and also quickly link to our analysis of the machines, has far fewer entries than our comparison tools for rugged handhelds and rugged tablets. As I asked myself why there were only relatively few products out there, I thought about the overall rugged notebook situation.

A little while ago I came across a news brief by DigiTimes, the Taipei-based tech news service that's always interesting to read (albeit not always totally accurate). The news item was about Getac gunning for an increased market share in rugged notebooks. Digitimes said the current worldwide rugged notebook marketshare situation was something like Panasonic having 60%, Getac and General Dynamics Itronix each about 12.5%. They didn't specify the remaining 15%, but it's obviously a number of smaller players.

That news came just a short while after General Dynamics officially pulled the plug on Itronix, so those 12.5% that used to be GD-Itronix rugged notebooks such as the GD6000, GD8000 and GD8200, are now gone and up for grabs. Who will step up to bat? Will Getac take over what GD-Itronix used to have? Or will Panasonic's Toughbooks get even more dominant? Or will perhaps someone else emerge?

There's no easy answer. And the market is a rather fragmented one. First, it's not totally clear what makes a notebook "rugged." In the business we generally differentiate between "rugged" and "semi-rugged," where the more expensive fully rugged devices carry better sealing and are built to handle more abuse than semi-rugged models that offers somewhat less protection, but usually cost and weigh less in return. But rugged and semi-rugged are not the only designations you see in the market. Some manufacturers also use terms such as "business-rugged," "vehicle-rugged," "durable," or even "enterprise-rugged." There's also "fully-rugged" and "ultra-rugged."

Of machines on the market, we'd consider products such as the Panasonic Toughbook CF31, Getac B300 or GD-Itronix GD8200 as rugged, and the Panasonic Toughbook 53, the Getac S400 and the GD-Itronix GD6000 as semi-rugged. But then there are also notebooks specifically made for enterprise and business that are better made than run-of-the-mill consumer notebooks, but somehow defy definition. Examples are the very light magnesium notebooks by Panasonic that cost a lot more than any regular laptop and can take much more abuse, but do not look tough and rugged.

Then there's yet another category of laptops that are almost exclusively used for business and vertical market applications, and that's the convertible notebooks. These had their origin when the industry was intrigued by tablets in the early 1990s and then again in the early 2000's, but wasn't quite sure if customers would accept them, so they made something that could be used both as a tablet and as a laptop. These usually cost more than notebooks, and were heavier than tablets, but somehow the concept is still around, and there are many models to choose from. Some are fully rugged, such as the Getac V100/V200 and the Panasonic Toughbook 19, others are semi-rugged like the Panasonic Toughbook C2, or business-rugged, such as Lenovo ThinkPad X230t or the HP EliteBook 2760p.

Yet another category is rugged notebooks that are based on large volume consumer notebooks. Examples are the semi-rugged Dell Latitude ATG and the fully rugged Dell Latitude XFR. With Dell having quick and easy access to all the latest technology, the ATG at least is almost always at, or close to, the state-of-the-art in processors and other technology.

And there further twists. While the likes of Panasonic and Getac make their own notebooks, a good number of others are made by a small handful of OEMs under exclusive or (more often) non-exclusive agreements with resellers that put their own brand names and model numbers on the devices. Taiwanese Twinhead, for example, had a longstanding relationship with the now defunct General Dynamics Itronix, with some models exclusive to Itronix and others marketed by various vendors through different channels. That can make for interesting situations. While Twinhead was and is an important OEM, they also sold their mostly semi-rugged lineup under their own name and the Durabook brand, and also through their US subsidiary GammaTech.

But there's more. A number of smaller players, or small parts of larger industries, provide highly specialized rugged notebooks that are often so unique as to only target very narrow markets. Some machines are built specifically to the requirements of military and other government contracts. Their names and brands are usually unknown to anyone outside of the small circle of targeted customers.

Why are there so few rugged and semi-rugged notebooks? One reason is that the market for them isn't all that large. They are popular in police cars and similar applications, and wherever notebooks simply must be much better built than fragile consumer models. Another reason is price. Even relatively high-volume semi-rugged laptops cost two to three times as much as a similarly configured consumer model. Rugged notebooks run three to five times as much, and specialized models may be ten times as much.

By and large, the rugged computing industry has been doing a good job educating their customers to consider total cost of ownership as opposed to looking only at the initial purchase price, but it's not always an easy sell. And with handy, inexpensive tablets flooding the market, it isn't getting any easier. Add to that the fact that makers of rugged notebooks always had a special millstone hanging around their necks, that of having to make sure that products stay compatible with existing docks, peripherals and software. That often prevents them from adapting to new trends and switching to newer technologies and form factors (like, for example, wider screens) as quickly as some customers demand. While it's certainly nice to see Intel coming out with a new generation of ever-better processors every year or two, it's not making it easier for rugged manufacturers to stay current in technology and features either.

As is, if Itronix really had a roughly 12.5% market share, that slice of the pie is now up for grabs and it should be interesting to see who ends up with it.

Posted by conradb212 at May 28, 2013 03:24 AM