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Ruggedized devices face a mobile-fueled transition

The next generation of smartphones is more rugged than ever, and this trend will change the ruggedized device market. Learn how and know what to expect in the next few years.

Many organizations have deployed ruggedized devices for years, but with the next generation of smartphones, enterprise ruggedized PCs are becoming obsolete.

Ruggedized PCs have brought computing power to vehicles for utility, public sector and other heavy-duty field work. These devices offer access to important databases, such as identity information, health records and building diagrams.

But I expect that the dominance of ruggedized PCs -- especially in vehicles -- is about to end, although it may take several years to fully migrate.

Problems with ruggedized PCs

There are numerous problems with ruggedized in-vehicle PCs. It is often difficult to install these devices in smaller vehicles because they are often bulky and require a specialized mount. Businesses must consider not only the initial high cost of the ruggedized PC -- which can cost three to four times that of a regular PC -- but also the cost of the mounting hardware needed to secure the device, especially against theft.

Because of the high cost and difficulty of changing out the devices, businesses usually deploy the equipment for longer than they should. Ruggedized devices are often more difficult to update, and they run high-performance computing systems, which can negatively affect usability and the overall user experience.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the lack of portability is difficult for many users. Because businesses mount and fix ruggedized PCs inside the vehicle, they cannot take the equipment to the point of service.

For example, a police or fire employee cannot take the device mounted in their car inside a building to obtain valuable information while performing his duties. This means that end users often have two devices -- the one fixed in the vehicle and the portable smartphone they carry with them -- which is a costly redundancy.

How smartphones will dominate ruggedized devices

I expect this situation to change going forward. There will still be some in-vehicle hardware because the ability to have a full-size display and keyboard is valuable. The ruggedized PCs of the future will aim to last a very long time and will be relatively inexpensive compared to a full PC. But, for most scenarios, we'll see businesses adopt docked mobile devices.

Current smartphones already have more processing power than many four- to five-year-old ruggedized PCs that are still in service. The ability to easily dock mobile devices indicates that they can replace PCs in most instances.

For example, a product such as Samsung DeX essentially turns a mobile device into a Windows desktop with the ability to run current apps. End users can move external keyboards out of the way when they are not in use. And the large screens can become part of a vehicle; most newer vehicles already have a fairly large LCD display on the dashboard.

The smartphones currently on the market are pretty rugged.

The smartphones currently on the market are pretty rugged. Most devices offer drop testing, water resistance and screen hardening from products such as Corning's Gorilla Glass. And the current cost of a high-end smartphone is about 25-35% the cost of a ruggedized laptop. This doesn't include the cost of a large mounted display and keyboard, but businesses should be able to amortize that cost over the next three to four generations of smartphones.

With mobile ruggedized devices, end users enjoy full-time access to data from any location, as well as easy upgrades. Most field workers carry a phone to communicate and access data anyway, so this approach offers a new way for users to stay connected at all times. It does require a bit of work, though, because IT needs to port the OS and apps to the smartphone -- but businesses are already doing this.

IT can easily upgrade smartphones every one to two years, enabling significant functional improvements on a much shorter cycle than ruggedized PCs. And wireless connectivity is already built into the smartphone, so there's no need for each field worker to have two wireless connections.

This adoption may take some time because the public sector is particularly slow to change. However, I expect many private companies that currently utilize ruggedized PCs to move quickly. Adoption of mobile ruggedized devices will likely be high within two to three years.

This trend should dramatically improve field worker communication, as well as improve user experience and reduce costs for the organization overall. It's only a matter of time before in-vehicle ruggedized PCs become obsolete.

This was last published in July 2018

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