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Rugged devices market responds to consumerisation trend

(Image credit: Image Credit: GaudiLab / Shutterstock)

The rugged devices market is shifting as consumerisation tightens its grip on the industry. It is seeing increasing use of tablets, which in turn are pushing out larger notebooks and laptops – and even smaller handhelds.

At the same time, the Android operating system (OS) continues to gain market share. The rugged tablet market saw a 17.5% increase in 2014, according to analyst VDC, fuelled by embedded manufacturing applications and first responder use.

The total rugged market in 2014 was roughly $5bn (£3.21bn), according to Kathryn Nassberg, lead enterprise mobility hardware at VDC Research. This is split evenly between large and small form factors.

According to VDC Research, rugged handheld device shipments were flat last year, but revenues were up 4% compared with 2014. Rugged smartphone shipments increased by 9.8% during the period, driven by growing demand in construction, utilities and manufacturing.

In the handheld market, Zebra Technologies – which bought Motorola Solution’s enterprise business last year – and Honeywell’s combined market share was nearly 65%, says Nassberg.

Panasonic and Xplore have the largest tablet share. In 2014, Motion Computing had a 13% market share, but the company was this year bought out by Xplore for $9m. In notebooks, Panasonic, Dell, and Getac have a combined market share of 90%.

Consumerisation of IT

Increasing demand for consumer-grade, yet rugged, devices continues to challenge the market. There is pressure to be thinner, lighter and faster – but also to contain multiple ports, have adequate battery life and the ability to function in all weather environments.

Adding to this, cost pressures – combined with a lack of understanding of what is required – are pushing many organisations to buy cheaper devices such as iPads for staff. But this is a false economy; many of these businesses end up buying rugged cases to protect the devices, says Ian Davies, country manager, Northern Europe, Xplore.

Additionally, says Peter Molyneux, president, Getac UK: ‘Businesses need to consider more than the upfront capital expenditure – they need to look at the indirect cost of hardware failure. That can include engineer downtime, management of returns and device repair or replacement.’

The battle for the rugged industry to prove total cost of ownership (TCO) continues to be complex, says Andy McBain, EMEA head of regional product management at Zebra Technologies. ‘You can buy three consumer products for the price of one of ours but then the update cycle comes to a halt,’ he says.

In response, rugged manufacturers have started to develop consumer-like products, but this requires a fine balance, says Jonathan Tucker, European product marketing manager at Panasonic. ‘We want to achieve the consumer look and feel. We’ve been very conscious of having something industrial, but that’s easy on the eye.’

One of the key challenges is to develop devices that meet the varied requirements of different sectors – in terms of form factor, performance and specification, says Molyneux. Manufacturers also need to understand specific user requirements, conform to health and safety regulations and ensure the device installation is reliable.

Tablets onslaught

The drive towards consumerisation has seen a steady migration to tablets rather than notebooks and laptops. ‘Tablets enable better mobility, and allow some companies to avoid expensive vehicle docking systems,’ Molyneux explains. Additionally, tablet solutions can see costs cut by 50%.

There has been growing use of tablets for applications that do not require a full keyboard. As field software becomes increasingly ‘touch centric’, this will increase even more, says Thomas Löfblad, VP of sales at Handheld Group.

As this growth continues, VDC is anticipating the rugged notebook market will contract over the next five years. However, encroachment on notebooks from tablets has not happened to the extent that was expected, says Nassberg. ‘So far, where a keyboard for data entry is still a major component, there has been very little erosion in unit shipments.’

Meanwhile, demand for larger displays similar to those on tablets is also seeing handheld screens increase, says Molyneux. ‘The 3.5in screen offers limited functionality,’ he says.

In operating systems, Android continues to make headway, says Nassberg, with a growing number of vendors now offering the OS. However, some companies are still hesitant to switch from Microsoft Windows.

‘Factors range from a desire not to migrate legacy applications, to security concerns, to the apprehension of the relative fragmentation of Android versus other operating systems,’ she says.

McBain says Zebra has seen demand for Android increase by 400%. He explains: ‘We do have some customers looking at Windows 10, but Android owns 70% to 80% of share as a phone OS, so the developer base has moved to that.’

Field mobility and postal are areas particularly benefiting from Android, says McBain, citing the UK’s Royal Mail as an example. Android share is ‘creeping up’, agrees Tucker – although he adds that Panasonic has only three products running Android compared with more than 10 on Windows.

‘It’s still only 15% of volumes, but it was about 10% before. The skill set has grown, and the experience is pretty good if you’re an Android mobile user on a tablet.’

Box: A Wearable Future

Wearable technology has the potential to revolutionise the rugged market, according to some industry experts. The technology could be particularly useful in manufacturing, or for augmented reality around servicing vehicles, Panasonic’s Tucker suggests. ‘When you are on the job, there’s always something you need to know,’ he points out.

Recent developments in head-mounted displays have created an increase in interest in the form factor, VDC’s Nassberg agrees. ‘There are companies that are working on head-mounted displays that can also function as safety glasses. The notion of hands-free access to data and input is a strong value proposition in areas such as field services and construction.’

Meanwhile, Google Glass could be used in the warehouse and logistics, and there have already been test deployments. Voice recognition is also an area with potential, says Tucker. For example: ‘Microsoft’s Cortana can understand natural speech – this could open new types of workflow, maybe in conjunction with a headset.’

However, there are still issues with wearable technology – and it may not be as applicable to the industrial arena as first thought, Xplore’s Davies warns. The demands of software applications lead to issues surrounding battery life, and for many field users, a smaller screen is not desirable, especially if the information required is detailed. There are also health and safety concerns in some industries, such as working at height.

Image Credit: GaudiLab / Shutterstock

James Atkinson
James Atkinson is a freelance editor and writer specialising in wireless communications.