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HP digs into rugged device market

Hewlett-Packard has plunged into the rugged device market with a pair of new portable outdoor computers and a new partnership with Itronix. An analyst says the growing need to replace flimsy PDAs with sturdy machines is likely to create more competition among the makers of rugged devices.

Hewlett-Packard Co. has announced the availability of a rugged laptop and rugged tablet PC, both of which were developed through a newly announced partnership with Itronix Corp.

The new devices, the HP Rugged Notebook nr3600 and the HP Rugged Tablet PC tr3000, are based on Itronix's GoBook devices. HP has been a reseller of Itronix's products for three years and has spent the last year working with the Spokane, Wash., manufacturer to develop its own devices.

The market for these rugged devices is growing to include police officers and fire fighters, military personnel, field service workers and even some retailer workers, said Ben Thacker, manager of HP's rugged mobile-computing division.

According to Venture Development Corp., the global market for all rugged devices grew by more than 7% in 2002 and 2003.

HP's devices comply with the military's MIL-STD-810F specification for rugged devices. That means that the devices can withstand extreme temperature variations as well as other harsh environmental factors, such as moisture and dust. Like Itronix's products, they feature multiple radios for Bluetooth, 802.11 and cellular connectivity, and they can be upgraded as standards evolve. HP's displays are optimized for outdoor use, and the keyboards are illuminated for nighttime use. They also use shock-mounted removable hard drives.

While HP will be competing directly with Itronix in this market, Itronix does not fear the competition. "HP's muscle and clout will help grow the market," said Matt Gerber, vice president of global marketing at Itronix.

In addition to taking on Itronix, HP will be going up against market leader Panasonic, which is owned by Japanese electronics giant Matsushita Electric Corp. Gerber said that HP will compete by offering enterprises more than end-user devices: HP can help develop software, integrate devices with back-end applications, and even provide companion servers.

It's an offering that can be valuable to many customers, said Tim Shea, senior analyst with Natick, Mass.-based Venture Development. HP brings a strong brand and a host of other products, services and expertise to the rugged device market, he said.

Shea said he expects the demand for rugged devices to keep growing, thanks in large part to the increased business need for mobility.

As more companies deploy mobile applications for use outside the office, and as they gain a competitive advantage from them, he said, their competitors will increasingly be pressured to adopt mobile strategies as well.

However, Shea said, many business-class devices -- such as laptops and PDAs -- are simply not made to withstand the demands of field work, Shea said, and that's a huge opportunity for rugged device vendors.

While rugged devices are generally more expensive than their business-class equivalents, he said that the total cost of ownership over a device's lifetime is often much lower for rugged devices. In general, they break less often and need less maintenance.

In time, it is likely that more mainstream vendors will follow HP's lead by teaming up with manufacturers who are well positioned in the rugged and vertical device markets, Shea said. For example, IBM already has a partnership with Symbol Technologies Inc., he said.

The HP Rugged Notebook nr3600 starts at $4,099, and the HP Rugged Tablet PC tr3000 starts at $3,449.


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