The Business Case for Rugged

— April 10, 2007

The falling costs of consumer-grade devices makes them a tempting entree to mobility. But can their ROI stand up to rugged in the long term?

The proliferation of cheap laptops and slim $150 smartphones represents a tempting entry point for enterprises looking to make their workers more productive in the field. But experts caution that indirect costs--such as ongoing maintenance and service, training and downtime from failed hardware and software--could lead to bigger expenses in the long run, undermining the whole reason for buying into mobility in the first place.

"If a car doesn't start 30 percent of the time, you just don't own it anymore. We're beginning to see that in IT," said Mike McMahon, director of workforce automation with Panasonic Computer Solutions Co.

Research from Venture Development Corp. (VDC), which conducted a comprehensive survey of several hundred end users of mobile computing in enterprise applications, shows that rugged mobile devices provide a superior cost profile to commercial-grade solutions in select environments. For instance, in industries such as field service, transportation and public safety, the annual total cost of ownership (TCO) of a mobile rugged device was as much as 35 percent lower than for non-rugged devices. On average, 4 percent of rugged laptops fail per year, compared with a 36 percent failure rate for comparable commercial-grade devices, said VDC. Multiply those costs across several hundred or thousand workers plus lost productivity, and the price tag for off-the-shelf technology becomes a significantly more expensive endeavor.

"Longer product and parts shelf lives and guarantees around stability of the entire hardware platform were major factors in our decision to go with a [rugged] solution," said Cam Jackson, logistics manager with Superior Propane, a fuel delivery business in Canada that recently completed a rollout of a rugged solution from field service automation company TouchStar Solutions on all of its bulk delivery trucks.
Claude Alexander, principal and VP with TouchStar, said there are other cost considerations, too. Commercial technology is moving so fast that there is no guarantee that product support will be available longer than two years (if the product makes it that long in the field). Rugged devices such as the Panasonic ToughBook have a five-year lifecycle. In addition, spending less up front usually means that enterprises must support devices from multiple manufacturers, keep pools of multiple spare devices on hand and troubleshoot several different devices.

And rugged devices aren't just for the utility, public safety, or oil and gas worker anymore. McMahon said he is seeing a host of non-traditional customers coming from industries such as healthcare looking for products that are semi-rugged in nature--devices that are more reliable than those off the shelf but aren't designed for the harshest environments. A new study from ABI Research reveals that the semi-rugged notebook category is forecast to grow at a compound annual rate of more than 16 percent between 2006 and 2011. It is expected to be one of the major drivers for the overall growth in the rugged mobile device market, alongside traditional product categories such as mobile phones, PDAs, Tablet PCs and fully rugged notebook PCs.

Stuart Carlaw, a principal analyst with ABI explained: "The combination of rugged features in more consumer-grade mobile devices is at the very core of product differentiation and the growing need to cater to field force enablement."

Lynnette Luna is a freelance writer with more than 10 years of experience writing about the wireless telecom industry.


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