Ruggedized devices are more about putting your tablet or smartphone into an Otterbox case. These are devices that can survive in extreme conditions as the manufacturing floor, or assembly line paint room. The military and law enforcement also have use cases for ruggedized devices.

I first came across ruggedized tablets about five years ago and finally got a chance to revisit the topic. James Brown, chief digital technologist for CW Professional Services (formerly Compuware Professional Services) recently brought me up to speed where ruggedized devices are in the market and why they are escaping Bring Your Own Device (BYOD).

“There will always be a need for companies to provide certain devices to certain people,” says Brown. “In particular, one of the growth areas we are expecting to see in the next year or so is ruggedized devices and specialty devices for use as you start to mobile enable your workers on the factory floor. He points out that certain parts of the factory, the paint room is a perfect example, where any electronic device in use must be non-sparking.

Law enforcement and the military use ruggedized tablets because they require electronics that can survive extreme temperature changes and even the occasional stray bullet.

Some examples of ruggedized devices include the Panasonic ToughPad (available in Android or Windows); HP ElitePad (Windows); NEC Terrain smartphone (Android), and Casio Gz’One Commando (Android).

For the reasons, Brown outlines, businesses and government agencies are still going to purchase ruggedized devices for employees who need them because they work in extreme environments even when opening the BYOD gates to managers and other employees.

Evolution of ruggedized tablets

“It certainly is a specialized field and always has been,” Brown says. “When you go back to eight years, ten years ago there were ruggedized devices based on some version of Windows, but there were other proprietary systems.”

Brown sees that there has been a real need for ruggedized devices to accommodate bar code reader and manufacturing control integration.

“Specialized environments and extremely dirty environments mess with precision equipment,” Brown says. “There’s that kind of ruggedization and then there’s these other compliance issues like the paint room problem that I mentioned.”

Ruggedized tablets and OSes

Brown doesn’t see Apple trying to enter the ruggedized device space and I agree with him. Apple device integrations seem to happen in the front office with Point of Sales (POS) systems and other similar use cases.

“I expect Windows will chase some of that too on their own or in partnership with a hardware vendor,” Brown states. “It’s small and specialized enough that they’ll work with another vendor to create those devices. There is some uniqueness around them. There are the specs themselves. In some cases, you are talking DOD [Department of Defense] kinds of specs.”

His point about Microsoft Windows is well taken. The advent of more tablets running a full version of Windows let alone recent changes in Microsoft Windows licensing for mobile devices and the company’s refreshed approach to mobility should make more partner plays in the ruggedized devices market a reality.

“But what we are seeing that is new that you don’t have a specialized Windows CE version that’s supposed to be like Windows, but really isn’t,” Brown offers. For Android, it’s going to be just another Android device.”

Brown told me that customers with whom they’ve had discussions about ruggedized devices are looking a device that is more useful and more universal, but also has those unique specs. Customer demands and improvements in mobile OSes and hardware architecture.

“Android provides that general user experience and because its fundamentally open source it provides a platform for hardware vendors trying to carve out a niche in the field,” according to Brown.

Cost points for ruggedized tablets

“Another thing I see trying to play out is what the cost point on those kinds of devices is going to look like,” Brown mentions.

The pricing of this device class stuck with me years after I first wrote about them. The cost points of the devices needed to come down. I saw them as neat yet niche devices but too costly to issue such devices in large numbers. Hopefully, developments in hardware manufacturing, more economical mobile OS licensing better aligning ruggedized device pricing with corporate purchasing reality.

Bottom line

Brown told me that client conversations he’s been having always get around to “Yeah, I want it ruggedized and recognize that I’m paying a premium for that but I shouldn’t have to pay ten times what I would for any other device.”

Signs in the mobile market including OS pricing and new hardware developments could mean that ruggedized device manufacturing can go main stream while delivering solutions that meet the technology needs of customers at a reasonable price point.