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October 31, 2016

Rocky (not Balboa) has left the building

Back in 2003 we approached the then-titans of the rugged notebook industry with this challenge: "Send us whatever you consider your best all-purpose rugged notebook computer for a roundup!" Who did we send that challenge to? You'd think Panasonic, Getac and Dell or GammaTech. Panasonic, yes, but back then the other two we chose for the shootout were Itronix and Amrel.

Panasonic, of course, had been making rugged notebooks since 1996, and Itronix, too. Itronix, which at time was a subsidiary of Telxon, had sent us one of their X-C 6000 Cross Country computers for review in the mid-90s. We wrote that "its bulldoglike ruggedness means you never had to worry about it." Back then, incidentally, we also reviewed the all-magnesium M3I PCMobile rugged laptop whose keyboard was removable, so the current trend towards 2-in-1s isn't something new (think 1994 Compaq Concerto).

Anyway, we reviewed the rugged Amrel Rocky II in 1998. We liked it and commented that "the unit's extraordinary ruggedness and clever, flexible sealing mean that it can be used just about anywhere." And actually introduced it in the article as "representative of the re-emerging class of rugged pen-enabled clamshell notebooks." That's right, re-emerging, back in 1998. Because there had been tough pen-enabled notebooks back in the early 1990s.

So that explains why it was Amrel and Itronix that were duking it out with Panasonic for the best rugged notebook in our 2003 shootout. Who won? It was pretty much a draw. We reported that "at decision time, what it may come down to are very specific requirements that only one of the three may be able to fulfill." We loved the Amrel's individually sealable connectors and its ultra-sealed keyboard. And the fact that it was the only competitor with zero flex. We loved the raw processing power of the Itronix GoBook. And we praised Panasonic for its "overall fit and finish that no one can match."

Getac was also already on the rugged scene at the time of our 2003 comparo. We'd examined their mid-range A320 in 2000, and the big A760 with its extra connectivity was also available. I should mention that the debate about what differentiates rugged and semi-rugged was as heated back then as it is today. With the possible exception that what used to be considered "rugged" a decade and a half ago would now be sold as "ultra-rugged" or "fully rugged," and what used to be "semi-rugged" is now routinely called "rugged."

Be that as it may, back in 2003 it was Panasonic, Itronix and Amrel we asked to step up to the plate. Panasonic, of course, went on to become the market leader in rugged notebooks, a position the company still holds on to today. Itronix was bought out by defense giant General Dynamics in 2006 or so, hung in there for a couple more years as General Dynamics-Itronix before GD shut them down.

Amrel, however, bravely soldiered on, even in the light of increasing competition from Getac and then Dell. While rarely at the technological forefront in terms of processors and ancillary technology, the company dutifully delivered very good rugged notebooks in the 13.3-inch, 15.1-inch and even 17-inch class, And that on top of also offering a full roster of 8-inch to 12-inch rugged tablets, and an equally impressive lineup of rugged handhelds that included Android-based models and special versions for biometric identification and such. Only a year ago, in late 2015, Amrel launched the ingeniously simple "Flexpedient" AT80 Android tablet that combined Ford Model T simplicity with modern technology and seemingly unlimited application potential.

We often wondered how Amrel managed to hang in there with modest advertising and only modest pursuit of review and PR opportunities. We figured it probably was because they very narrowly focussed their efforts on their target markets and had no interest in becoming known to a wider circle of potential customers. But they did hang in there, and we had occasional contact with Amrel and discussions of areas of interest to the rugged markets.

Where did Amrel come from in the first place? From the bits and pieces of available information, it seems that the company was formed by Edward Chen, who had once been a VP at Motorola and had also co-founded Crete Systems in Taiwan around 1990. Amrel and Crete Systems had a close relationship, with Crete apparently the ODM/OEM for most of Amrel's rugged computers. There were also AMREL's subsidiary, Bionetek Corporation, that developed an early cardiac diagnostic system, and Solarmer Energy that was into polymer solar cells. There further was MilDef that had partnered with Amrel since the mid-1990s, and there was German Roda that was launched in 1987. There was the MilDef Group that consisted of MilDef Systems in Sweden, MilDef Ltd in England, MilDef AS in Norway, and MilDef Crete in Taiwan. Everything related in one way or another.

Why mention all this? Because after all these many years, in September 2016 Amrel in Southern California suddenly quit the rugged computer business and sold its its computer division to MilDef Group. The news release stated that "MilDef Inc. will carry on AMREL’s legacy under its MilDef brand name and continue providing our customers exceptional service and support after the acquisition." So most of the Amrel Rocky handhelds, notebooks and tablets are now sold as MilDef products.

Since Amrel had such a long history in rugged computing we, of course, wondered what happened. That doesn't seem to be clear even to insiders. Our email inquiries to both Amrel and MilDef went unanswered or shed little light on what happened. We consider that regrettable. There's too much history in that quarter of a century of rugged Amrel computers to simply go away. And though MilDef has taken over the line, at a time where the rugged notebook market leaders are charging full-speed ahead, it'd be good to know who MilDef is and what the company's intentions are, especially on the US market. After all, we're talking about a product line that once had battled the leaders in the field to a draw. They should not just vanish into obscurity.

Posted by conradb212 at October 31, 2016 10:54 PM

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