Part II: Enterprise use of rugged mobile devices

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Not all smartphones or tablets are used in nice safe offices: many firms have field forces that go into harsh environments of various severities. Plus having mobile devices that are more rugged reduces cost over the long run, as they don’t need to be replaced as often.

Historically, there were basically two classes of mobile devices: consumer devices that were not really rugged in any way (dust, moisture, or anything else) and rugged devices that were usually both IP67 and MIL-STD-810 compliant, like the one in the photo above. The latter devices (whether smartphones or tablets) tended to cost at least double what the consumer devices did, and specifying them meant enterprises required full business cases, and lots of money…which may have slowed the adoption of mobile devices in field force deployments unless the business case was really obvious.

There are also after-market cases that enterprises could buy to take consumer devices up to (or almost up to) the level of the fully rugged and more expensive devices. Probably the case I see the most often is the OtterBox, which comes in various versions of varying ruggedness. I have friends who swear by them, and they do work, but they cost an extra $50 or so, and they make small sleek devices into bigger and chunkier devices. But the demand for making devices more rugged is obviously big: OtterBox had over $500 million in revenues a year ago, and is probably close to $1 billion in sales run rate by now.

Why can’t someone make a rugged (or at least rugged enough!) mobile device that doesn’t need a case, or at least as big of a case?

Luckily, the trend is our friend: consumer mobile devices have steadily been getting more rugged across some (but not all) of the criteria one would look for in a field force device…and at the usual consumer price. Here is a list of some consumer smartphones that are IP67-68 compliant: some are thousand dollar devices that fit that traditional rugged mold, and others are only a few hundred dollars. The devices have stronger screens, and are also sealed against dirt and moisture. The average consumer device is getting tougher over time, and that trend is almost certain to continue.

I need to be clear that there remain MANY field force deployments that require more than IP67-68, and these new consumer smartphones will not be suitable or safe for those instances.  But for some enterprises, the devices will be rugged enough for some portion of field force uses. This was one of our Deloitte 2014 TMT Predictions. (Paul Lee was lead author on this topic, and I think it is a great Prediction. But we publish 14-16 Predictions most years, and I can’t talk to every single one in a 45 minute presentation. Except in Calgary, the local Deloitte firms didn’t ask me to include the rugged mobile device Prediction as one of the topics to be discussed.)

What about tablets? Well, we are not even four months into 2014, and our TMT Prediction is about the full year. So far, very few tablets that I have seen have shown the same ruggedness ‘feature creep’ that we are seeing in smartphones. The stronger glass has been a bit of an issue, and I suspect that making the larger devices impervious to dust and moisture is trickier than in smartphones. Finally, a larger and heavier device is always going to be more of a mechanical challenge for drop tests: bigger devices are inherently more fragile.

So while I haven’t run into any IP67 consumer tablets in the field yet, I expect more of them by the fall. Based on what we have seen so far in more rugged smartphones, those are likely to be Android devices, but that’s just an educated guess. (I normally never talk about individual operating systems, but the clear trend has been that Android devices seem to be experimenting with ruggedness as a differentiating feature, and other OS have not.) Next, there are a few rugged consumer tablets out there already: this one from France and this Chinese one. Both are out of stock, and they haven’t come up in any of my discussions on this topic, but that may not mean much due to small sample size.

To close this post, it is worth remembering that many enterprises have spec-ed ‘rugged’ devices for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they assume that any device going into the field needs to be rugged, and that is not true: they only need to resist a bit of water or grit, and they don’t even need full IP67 ruggedness. Next, sometimes they need IP67 and some aspects of MIL-STD-810, but not all. In those instances, they have over-speced for ruggedness, and may move to adopting ‘rugged enough’ consumer devices.

Finally, there are use cases where it isn’t just about water, sand or worrying about dropping the device: MIL-STD-810 Method 511 makes sure that the device is safe to use in an explosive atmosphere. In a dinner with oil company executives in Calgary, this was a key topic. The downside of not being rugged enough is NOT merely a cracked screen or broken phone: the wrong device on an oil rig can emit an explosion-causing spark, which could result in millions of dollars of damage and dozens of lives lost. There will remain many enterprise use applications where the traditional high end rugged device is the only acceptable solution.

As an aside, it is worth noting that it isn’t just smartphones or tablets that pose that kind of risk on an oil-platform. I am a big fan of wearables in the enterprise: I think that market may end up being much more useful and valuable than the consumer market over time. There are various jobs on a rig, but picture a Motorhand or Derrickhand (on the rig floor or up on the platform) having a device that records what they are seeing in real time, presents them with a augmented reality display of the relevant data, and all worn on their heads in a hands-free fashion? Brilliant – but it better pass MIL-STD-810 Method 511 and not blow everyone on the rig to Kingdom Come! 

The question that many of my clients have asked is if new, more-rugged consumer mobile devices will cut into sales of existing rugged devices? Or will they be additive, growing the overall space? My hunch (and our Deloitte prediction) was that they will be additive, but there is no good data so far.

Great: we now have a path to seeing rugged enough consumer devices take off in the enterprise. But just how popular will they be for consumers? Is this something that only 20% of buyers will want, or will it become near ubiquitous?

Next post: Consumer uptake of rugged mobile devices. Is rugged the new black?

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