Rugged’s value proposition lags user needs

The rugged IT market is about to get a wake-up call.

For a long time, both buyers and sellers alike accepted the notion that buying rugged IT means giving up a lot of features that come with standard products. But as the general IT market continues to emphasize mobility and smaller device form factors, those lower expectations are bound to be revisited.

“The value proposition of rugged needs to change,” said David Krebs, vice president for enterprise mobility and connected devices at VDC Research. “Clearly there are benefits you’ll get in being able to operate these [mobile] devices in harsh environments, but you’re also talking about platforms that are extremely flexible in terms of I/O, operating systems and support.”

But it’s not just about the devices themselves. It’s about what they can deliver. That’s the message at the heart of both the administration’s Digital Government Strategy and the Defense Department’s Mobile Device Strategy.

In introducing the DOD’s recent Commercial Device Implementation plan, for example, Teri Takai, the DOD’s chief information officer, said it was not “simply about embracing the newest technology [but] about keeping the department’s workforce relevant in an era when information accessibility and cybersecurity play a critical role in mission success.”

The implementation plan aims to establish ways to equip DOD users and managers with mobile solutions that leverage COTS products, improve functionality, decrease cost and “enable increased personal productivity,” she said.

That last point is also central to many other trends in government IT. For example, bring-your-own-device policies aim to provide government workers, particularly younger people, with the choice of using the devices they are most familiar with to do their jobs.

The expectation, which is backed by research, is that this will optimize the productivity of these workers in a way that wouldn’t happen if they are forced to use government-furnished devices only.

Although many agencies are dragging their feet on BYOD, mainly due to security concerns, the rationale behind this trend is changing the way government looks at technology.

Employees are now looking for the mobile technology they use at work to reflect the technology they use at home, particularly in such areas as the user interface and application design. For example, they are taking the Android platform, with the development and support capabilities available for it in the broader commercial market, and introducing it into the military and government environments.

That’s where Krebs believes the rugged community is falling behind.

“There’s always going to be something that’s slightly more customized and user-specific in the government market,” he said. “But the scalability of rugged solutions has suffered recently, and as a result you have many purpose-built solutions that are built for a particular application or program that are really difficult to leverage for other use cases.”

During the last five years, industry vendors did a lot to change the perception of rugged IT as being tied to heavy, expensive and outdated technology, he said. Until recently, in fact, there wasn’t too much of a lag between the performance of rugged systems and the latest laptop from Apple or other commercial vendors.

But the pace of change in commercial IT is changing, and the rugged IT industry needs to keep up. Some vendors say they recognize that.

Tim Collins, senior director, federal at Panasonic Solutions, for example, said his company recognizes that the most dramatic innovations in IT are the happening at the operating system and software interfaces level, and is working to keep up to speed with its own engineering developments. But Krebs warns the rugged IT community against getting too caught up in the concept of consumerization. The idea is not to simply take consumer technology, such as mobile, and simply hand it to employees.

“The more important part is taking consumer experiences and translating them into the enterprise and worker environments,” he said. “And I think there’s a huge lag in the rugged community in providing that user experience.”