Mobile devices offer more opportunities than threats
Smart phones won't displace rugged IT, but they might provide new business for vendors
Although no one is claiming that smart phones will take the place of fully rugged handheld computers, the accelerating use of the devices in the enterprise is fueling the rapid overall growth of mobile computing and communications. In addition, smart phones are increasingly influencing mobile users' expectations for functionality and ease of use.
In government, the military has been taking the lead on the potential use of smart phones. Speaking to government contractors in April, Defense Department CIO Teri Takai said a key priority for DOD is the adoption of mobile technologies, adding that there is a growing demand for consumer mobile technologies such as the Apple iPhone and Android-based smart phones.
Also in April, the Army announced it would develop a prototype device, named the Joint Battle Command-Platform Handset, that would run on the Android operating system.
Smart phones and handheld devices will indeed play a more important role in warfighter missions, said Terry Edwards, director of system-of-systems engineering at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. However, it’s unlikely that regular commercial handsets will suffice. Those can handle a lot of abuse from an average user, Edwards said, but the devices will need to adhere to specific rugged standards for military use.
Other considerations include the devices' performance and ability to run tactical applications.
“Depending on the mission, a commercial rugged smart phone could play a significant role,” Edwards said. “A rugged handheld device will be a necessity, and centralized control of applications for interoperability will be essential, as well.”
It’s a wide open field now. The only rugged devices that come close to the smart phone’s capability are those such as Panasonic Corp.’s Toughbook U1 Ultra, which, with a 7.2-inch by 5.9-inch footprint, is smaller than any computer or tablet, but at just more than 2 inches thick, it’s still a good deal bigger and chunkier than a smart phone. That device won’t slip easily into someone’s jacket pocket.
However, its display comes with a 1,024 x 600 resolution, and it contains an Intel Atom processor, which means it can run a complete Windows 7 operating system and not a cut-down derivative, such as Windows CE.
Those details are important when defining the characteristics of a rugged smart phone, said Tim Collins, Panasonic’s director of defense and intelligence sales. The magic goal would be something like Dick Tracy’s wristwatch, but the question is what you can pack into a phone, because as you reduce the real estate, you also reduce the capabilities of the device.
“Everyone is certainly driving to that form factor,” Collins said. “But we’ve taken the decision that we won’t produce products that can’t fit into the rugged area.”
However, it depends on how rugged you need your device to be. For example, the Motorola ES400 looks more like a regular smart phone and, though not fully rugged, is rated as exceeding Mil-Std 810G for rain and IP42 standards for water ingress. Other similar durable products span the commercial smart-phone and fully rugged worlds.
The military is looking to use smart phones for a variety of functions, said David Krebs, director of VDC Research’s mobile and wireless practice. At the high end, dominated by fully rugged technology, troops would use them with specialized applications such as sniper bullet location, call for fire, two-way translations for talking to locals, and situational awareness applications.
But smart phones also are useful for tasks such as access to training and maintenance manuals, recordkeeping, medical records, and approval of leave passes, which don’t require high-end rugged devices. In other words, it will be a matter of choosing the right horse for the course.
“I think with the miniaturization of some of the components that will go into these phones and what they’re doing in terms of leveraging new kinds of composites for the casings, they’ll be able to deliver a device that meets the rugged spec in a much more ergonomic product,” Krebs said. “I mean, just look at the evolution of these rugged handheld products over the past 10 years. It’s gone from something that looked like a brick to where, today, they are quasi-pocketable.”
What it will also do is expand the overall rugged device market because these phones are not displacing anything, he said. Yes, troops carry tactical radios and use head-mounted displays, “but for the most part, it’s not as if these guys are running around with a rugged tablet that these phones will replace,” he said. “So it’s a net new opportunity.”