Mobile push points the way to rugged future

It might not be apparent yet, but the future development of rugged IT is likely to take its cue from the evolution of commercial mobile technologies. How could it not, when federal agencies, which heavily influence the rugged IT market, are planning big investments in mobility?

The Obama Administration, for example, is pinning much of the success of its two-year old Digital Government Strategy on the proliferation of mobile IT throughout government.

Likewise, the Defense Department expects mobile technologies to provide the next leap forward in operational effectiveness and battlefield awareness. Building on its Mobile Device Strategy, published in May 2012, the DOD in February released a Commercial Device Implementation plan that detailed how it expects to take the fullest advantage of mobile devices.

“As today’s DOD personnel increasingly rely on mobile technology as a key capability enabler for joint force combat operations,” said Teri Takai, Defense Department chief information officer, “the application of mobile technology into global operations, integration of secure and non-secure communications, and development of portable, cloud-enabled capability will dramatically increase the number of people able to collaborate and share information rapidly.”

To make this happen, the department will need to confront a number of potential stumbling blocks internally, such as infrastructure modernization and security. But defense agencies also will be looking for new developments in the rugged market.

“If you look at the mix of rugged today in government, it is very heavily weighted to larger form factors such as notebooks and vehicle-mounted types of devices where ergonomics such as portability and battery life are not as critical,” said David Krebs, an analyst with VDC Research. “People also want to have the kind of information they provide at the point of action, and the missing link there is when they step away from the vehicle.”

Mobile technologies could obviously provide that link, he said, so the potential for rugged mobile is there. “But the reality today is that rugged IT is still way too expensive, way too bulky and not ergonomic enough,” he said. “There’s always something that’s not quite right, such as the interface and display, to make sense for a lot of these ground soldier applications.”

Answers are being developed. The Army’s refocused Nett Warrior program, for example, which originally would have provided dismounted soldiers with a 10-pound computer to provide situational awareness, is now testing solutions based on ruggedized smartphones. The Army could start fielding these solutions as early as 2014.

Panasonic, which was a leader in extending mobility generally to the rugged arena with its Toughbook line of notebook computers, is eyeing mobile as a major opportunity.

“We see the trend to mobile as absolutely positive for use, and as the next big thing,” said Tim Collins, senior director, federal at Panasonic Solutions. “If you look at the desktop computer versus the laptop, even if those were a clamshell and of the heavier variety, they provide a lot more flexibility of use.”

The company’s customers are already looking to mobile in their IT developments and are creating applications that will be able to take advantage of mobile technologies, he said. And the mobile trend is showing up across the board, from the Defense Department to civilian agencies who want to provide their employees with better services, such as telework and communications in the field.

Panasonic has already dipped its toe into the rugged mobile market, with its Toughpad series of fully-rugged tablet computers that it introduced at the end of 2011. Other devices will come, but the market for them is not quite there.

“Consumer trends drive technology adoption,” Collins said. “Once that adoption has been established, then we will execute a rugged strategy around that.”