While we do not typically write product reviews, the recently released Motorola/Symbol/Zebra TC70 did catch our attention. To suggest that the rugged handheld market has been struggling through an identity crisis over the past several years is perhaps putting it mildly. While other mobile categories such as smartphones and tablets have been growing at a furious pace, the rugged handheld market has contracted, and in some cases fairly significantly. There have been a couple of factors at play contributing to this protracted malaise creating somewhat of a perfect storm:
- Competition from lower cost consumer devices
- Perception of rugged mobile technology as lagging key trends
- Overall investment climate and access to capital
- Rugged handheld OS roadmap confusion
Competition from consumer devices is not going away, although several larger scale deployments have left something to be desired. However, a natural correction to the market has occurred whereby consumer devices have displaced rugged devices because at the time of deployment there was no viable alternative. Now there is. So as a result there has been a natural correction in the market to the effect of approximately 15-25% of the opportunity. That said, the use of consumer devices to support enterprise workflows has mostly been additive to the overall opportunity. In other words more mobile workers are being equipped with mobile devices to automate processes.
However, the bottom line is that today's rugged handheld product portfolios leave something to be desired. While the use cases for many of these devices are unique, and utility and reliability clearly trump ID and design as key features, justifying rugged investments for many organizations has become increasingly difficult. There are many factors that have contributed to this situation, with perhaps the most glaring being the perception that rugged technology vendors are significantly lagging key technology trends. In a recent survey among enterprise mobility decision makers, four in ten shared in this sentiment.
A key headwind for rugged vendors has come in the form of their OS strategy. Long the domain of Windows Mobile/Windows CE, vendors and end users have been confronted by the reality that these existing platforms were no longer being invested in by Microsoft and that support would be available through 2020. While that may seem like a long time away, making major investments in a dead end platform - especially when considering the security breaches encountered by major end users - is not a winning proposition for end users. Microsoft's efforts to win over rugged handheld OEMs to commit resources to their next generation solution - Windows Embedded Handheld 8/8.1 - has not been fruitful with only two products to show for.
The obvious alternative has been Android. However, broader enterprise support for Android, especially for mission critical applications, has until recently been tenuous with security and platform life-cycle management being the key issues. That is now changing, especially outside the US but also within. We are seeing this clearly translate in the rugged handheld market as shipments of rugged handheld devices running Android reaching critical mass in 2014 and the number of mobile ISVs supporting Android grows. That is not to say there is not pent up demand for a strong Microsoft solution going forward (many end users are very conservative and would rather maintain the status quo), there is a viable alternative that reflects the next generation of rugged handheld computing.
Which brings us back to the Symbol TC70. Forgetting for a second its many confusing names (it was released in the midst of Zebra closing its acquisition of Motorola Solutions Enterprise BU) it represents to us one of the best interpretations of what the market is looking for. Taking design cues from consumer devices the TC70 has a large, crisp and responsive display that can support a variety of interactions including gloved hands and when wet. Similarly important is its ability to support a conductive stylus for signature capture. Running Android 4.4.2, part of the KitKat generation, the device does not have the locked down feel of earlier rugged Andrdoid translations. However, the Mx extensions address many of the enterprise 'gaps' with Android.
In comparison to other Android devices in the portfolio (the MC 40 and TC55) this device is the clear workhorse in terms of ruggedness, battery life and overall functionality. Critical is the embedded industrial imager which can decode virtually any 1D/2D symbology in most lighting conditions from up to 3ft. It is heavy, but also sufficiently ergonomic so it can be handled comfortably. The price point, especially among today's price sensitive buyers, will be a challenge. It is important to note that these are devices that are used on average for 4-5 years and not recycled every 18-24 months. However, a sentiment among end users is that with the rapid change of mobile technology, end users want to benefit faster from that innovation by adopting faster replacement cycles. Truth be told, much of the "innovation" happening among mobile devices today is mostly iterative (faster processor, larger display, radio upgrade) rather than being truly trans-formative.
While the debate over the true value of rugged will not go away, what products like the TC70 will do is provide a meaningful and modern mobile platform that organizations with mission and business critical work-flows can confidently leverage.