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August 29, 2016

Congrats to Xplore Technologies: 20 years of rugged tablets, and only rugged tablets

At the January 1997 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I walked into the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center on the lookout for something — anything — new and exciting in tablets or pen computers. Sure, Microsoft had announced Windows CE at the Fall Comdex in response to Apple’s Newton Message Pad and the emerging “Palm Economy,” and our bi-monthly Pen Computing Magazine was doing well. But, by and large, handhelds and tablets were very far removed from the booming world of desktop computers and laptops and printers and the latest of absolutely-must-have PC software.

But there, amidst all of the glitzy, glossy booths of mainstream computing was… an even glitzier and glossier booth by a company I had never heard of. They called themselves Xplore Technologies, and they were thinking big. There had, of course, been rugged computers before, but most were quite utilitarian and often looked a bit unfinished. Xplore’s Genesys, on the other hand, looked like something right at home on the Starship Enterprise. Cool industrial design, bold lines, even bolder plans. Having seen my share of grand plans I admired the effort but wasn’t convinced that these folks' vision was actually going to see the light of day, let alone become a success. However, between a persuasive VP of Marketing, the grand booth, and the look of the various models (there weren’t any fully functional production units yet), I agreed to an interview with Xplore's boss and committed to coverage in our print magazine.

And so this is what we ran in Pen Computing Magazine Volume 4, Number 15, page 41, in early 1997:

Xplore Genesys

Pen technology “dream team” presents impressive new system

Every so often, individuals — or groups of individuals — get dissatisfied with the status quo and set out to create new solutions, new forms of government, new companies. or whatever it takes to make things right.

One such group of individuals found the general status of mobile and pen computing lacking and joined together to form Xplore Technologies Inc. Xplore has an impressive roster of seasoned professionals from all areas of mobile computing, both on the vendor and customer sides. Founding members have earned their professional experience and reputations at companies such as GRiD, Telxon, Motorola, Intel, Fujitsu, Telular, and a number of vertical market industrial clients.

Fueled by a common vision of offering technologically advanced “whole product solutions," a firm belief in an annual pen computing market growth rate of over 30%, and financing by a small group of supportive investors, the Xplore team is conjuring up a compelling business strategy based on tactical partnerships with companies that provide products and services complementary to Xplore’s technology offerings.

Believing that existing pen and mobile systems often fail because they are created by technology companies without real knowledge of their markets, Xplore not only recruited industry representatives into their core staff, but also developed the specs of their “Genesys” product family in conjunction with customers from their targeted markets — utilities and public safety. The result is a very functional, very attractive design that’s both technologically up-to-date and ready for future expansion, a necessity in markets where equipment is expected to have a life cycle of several years.

The Xplore Genesys pen computer, much like the TelePad 3, is based on a main “brain," or core, that houses the main logic board, power, memory, and screen, and X-pods that contain peripheral functionality, such as GPS systems, additional batteries, wireless communications, and various I/0 options. The X-pod expansion bay is shaped so that it doubles up as an ergonomically shaped hand grip for the unit. Xplore calls both the core unit and the X-pods “environmentally indifferent,” i.e. water resistant, with shock mounted components in a sealed composite (or optional aircraft aluminum) inner housing for the core, and equally impressive sealing of the pods. The unit is further protected with impact resistant exterior moldings, all combining to give a Genesys computer a good chance to survive a 4-foot drop onto concrete.

As should be expected from a brand-new, "clean slate" design, the Genesys includes thoroughly modern components, starting with a very-low voltage lntel Pentium processor running at 133Mhz; two color including a TFT High-Brite version, and one monochrome LCD screen options, all offering a large 10.4" diagonal viewing area and 800 x 600 SVGA resolution; 64-bit PCI bus architecture; an electrostatic pen interface with touch screen functionality; no less than three docking systems; and — of course — Windows 95. There is room for up to 64MB of RAM and up to 3.2GB of hard disk space.

Since Xplore projects a significant number of Genesys slates to be vehicle mounted, special care was given to an optimally designed vehicle dock. The airbag zone compliant dock has a separate breakout box for cable management and uses standard PC connectors. The desktop dock provides access to CD-ROMs, LANs, modems, keyboards, and external monitors. essentially turning the Genesys into a fully functional desktop computer. The office dock, finally, is a space-saving design with a LAN controller that allows mounting up to four tablets on the wall for easy access. All docks are based on the same mechanical docking head, and all offer fast charging capabilities and expanded intelligence through an I/0 controller in the docking head.

As of this writing (January 1997), Xplore was in the process of assembling final Beta units for testing with a limited number of customers in February 1997. According to Xplore, production is scheduled to begin in late March.

Our impression? What we have here is a high powered group of very qualified people developing and marketing what they believe is the very best product for the pen computing and mobile market. This is good news for pen technology in general, and for companies seeking a state-of-the art mobile solution in particular. — Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, Pen Computing Magazine

And here's what it looked like in that early 1997 issue of Pen Computing Magazine:

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 20 years since I wrote that article. And pretty much exactly 20 years since Xplore began making rugged tablets. Back then, Xplore’s competition included Teklogix, Dauphin, DES, Epson, Granite, Husky, IBM, Itronix, Kalidor, Microslate, Mitsubishi, Norand, PGI Data, Telepad, Telxon, Texas Micro, WalkAbout and others. All gone, absorbed, or no longer in the rugged tablet business. Xplore, however, is not only still here, but expects fiscal 2017 revenue of between US$85 million and US$95 million. And Xplore is #2 in global rugged tablet marketshare. Quite impressive.

It hasn’t been an easy ride for Xplore. There was customers’ general reluctance to embrace the tablet form factor. There were the special demands of tablets that always seemed a year or two ahead of available technology. Despite Microsoft Windows for Pen Computing and then the Tablet PC Edition of Windows XP, Windows never was a natural for tablets. So business was hard, even after the iPad opened the floodgates for tablets.

Yet here Xplore is, now with the complementary product line of fellow tablet pioneer Motion, stronger than ever. It’s ironic that while once it was lack of acceptance of tablets that was Xplore’s biggest problem, now it’s the very success of tablets that’s a challenge — with tablets so cheap, many potential customers just buy consumer tablets and stick them in a case.

So after 20 years of making tablets and nothing but tablets, questions remain. On the far end, how rugged is rugged enough? What degree of ruggedness is compelling enough to sway possible markets, and at what price point? How can one profitably grow while remaining under the radar of consumer electronics giants (so they won’t start an “active” or “outdoor” or “adventure” version of one of their products)? None of these questions are easy to answer. Or the answers easy to implement.

But having been around for 20 years and having the benefit of all that experience, few are in a better position to succeed than Xplore Technologies. Here's to the next 20, Xplore!

Posted by conradb212 at 06:05 PM | Comments (0)

August 09, 2016

Why we take things apart and show what's inside

At RuggedPCReview, we take things apart. We open up handhelds, tablets, panels, notebooks and industrial PCs. We dissect them methodically, documenting our progress, jotting down observations and commentary. What we find inside a product becomes part of our detailed reviews, including pictures of the insides and of interesting details.

We do this because ruggedness isn't something that's just skin-deep. Truly rugged mobile computing devices are designed from the ground up to be tough and rugged and being able to handle the various kinds of abuse they may encounter in customers' hands (and falling out of customers' hands). While the outsides of a successful consumer product must look good and appeal to the eye, a rugged product must look good inside, too, and by "look good" we mean designed and built to handle abuse. For us here at RuggedPCReview, that means it's mandatory to look inside and describe what we find. Else we wouldn't do our job.

We've felt this way for a very long time. Ever since, back in the mid 1990s, we reviewed a tough-looking tablet its manufacturer said was specifically designed for the military and operation under the harshest conditions. It looked very tough indeed, but when our editors took it apart, it was like a half-finished science project inside. There were wires and loose connectors everywhere, things were not fastened in place, seals were inadequate or non-existent, and the internal layout and organization did not make sense. There was no way that product was going to hold up out there in the field. Not surprisingly, that company went out of business shortly thereafter.

It was then that we decided to review what's inside a rugged device as carefully as we describe and document what's outside. We love taking pictures that show off a product out there in the muck, rain, water, snow or ice, because those are the extreme conditions rugged computing products are being designed for. But we also show what's inside. Because what's inside, the computer, is what the tough and rugged exterior must protect, and even the hardest shell cannot protect the guts of a rugged system if it's not designed and built right inside.

By and large, the guts of today's rugged products are far, far better than we've seen in the past. We used to see plenty of seals that could not possibly seal, plenty of connectors that could not possibly stay connected, plenty of parts that were certain to break, plenty of layouts that were too complex to work, and plenty of cooling systems that could not stay cool. We saw plenty of foils, conductive material, seals, screws and soldering that could not possible survive even the first time the unit was taken apart for repair or maintenance. We saw plastic clips that would break, screw sockets that would fail, seals done wrong (or omitted entirely), and materials that simply made no sense.

It is better now, and perhaps our many years of documenting and discussing what's inside rugged systems how they are made, has contributed in a small way to that progress. And even if not, it has probably helped raise awareness of interested parties in what's inside of all those important and often costly tools for tough jobs, tools that must not fail.

The vast majority of manufacturers we have worked with over the years understands that. Most take pride in the internal quality of their products and appreciate our documentation of the insides of their products with photography that's often much better than what even the FCC does.

But every once in a while, we're told we must not open a device or must not publish pictures of what's inside. Stated justification for the former may be that a unit is sealed and opening it would destroy the seal and reduce or eliminate ingress protection. We don't consider that a good argument for two reasons. First, we can't recommend a product when we're not even allowed to look inside. And second, if seals break when the unit is taken apart, that makes service expensive, difficult and inconvenient, big negatives all.

We've also had a very few requests not to publish interior pictures because then the competition would know how it's done and steal the design. That, likewise, we do not consider a good argument. If the competition is indeed concerned enough to want to know what's inside a product, they will simply buy one and see for themselves (that happens all the time, everyone does it). But what if designs are "stolen"? Still not a good argument; one cannot easily copy an entire design from a picture. We're not talking rearranging Lego blocks here.

By and large our experiences with the industry have been overwhelmingly good. Almost everyone is helpful and genuinely concerned about making the best possible products. Project managers, in particular, take great pride in the designs they are entrusted with. Most love to share, discuss issues, answer questions, and appreciate feedback. Most marketing people we work with are also great sources of information as well as helpful conduits to/from technical staff and PMs.

Reader and site visitor feedback is uniformly in favor of detailed reviews that show both the outside and the insides of the products they are interested in. It helps them make more educated purchasing decisions.

So that is why we here at RuggedPCReview take things apart and show what it looks like inside. We could save ourselves a lot of time and effort not doing it, but then we wouldn't be doing our job. And we wouldn't do a favor to manufacturers who often learn from our third-party analysis, and we certainly wouldn't do a favor to our readers.

Posted by conradb212 at 05:18 PM | Comments (0)