On the rebound

Ruggedized computers are staging a comeback in the government sector. Although they have been a part of government technology for years, they have usually played a behind-the-scenes role. The typically expensive machines were installed in tanks or ships. Today, however, military and civilian customers are eyeing devices that are smaller, faster and cheaper than their predecessors.

A few years ago, a ruggedized laptop might have cost $5,000. Today, a low-end ruggedized notebook equipped with a 1.8 GHz Mobile Intel Corp. Pentium 4 Processor-M costs $2,000.

The lower price could attract agencies gearing up for homeland security duties and looking to equip first responders with more durable computers.

Significant security-related orders have already been placed. Itronix Corp. announced in September that its ruggedized GoBook Max wireless notebooks would be included in the FBI's Bomb Scene Response Reporting Kits.

The initial order is worth about $5 million, but the deal could grow to more than $60 million as accredited bomb squads nationwide purchase the kits, said Tom Turner, chief executive officer of Itronix. Defense Group Inc. is the prime contractor on the FBI project.

"We're seeing a real pick-up in our [government] business," said Turner, whose company had been primarily targeting utilities and telecommunications companies. "Clearly, Sept. 11 has driven some higher level of awareness."

Rugged Choices

Industry executives expect much of the demand for ruggedized devices to center around mobile gear — notebook and handheld computers. Agencies considering such devices have a number of options.

Itronix and Panasonic Computer Solutions Co. offer notebook products with varying degrees of ruggedness. In addition, PC vendors such as Gateway Inc. will ruggedize notebook computers on a custom basis.

Symbol Technologies Inc., Intermec Technologies Corp. and HHP (formerly Hand Held Products, a Welch-Allyn affiliate) are among the handheld vendors now featuring rugged models.

Ruggedized products are available through general-purpose vehicles such as the General Services Administration schedule and specialized programs such as the Army-administered Automatic Identification Technologies (AIT) effort, which offers handheld devices from such vendors as Symbol.

Government resellers, such as Defense Group, GTSI Corp. and PlanetGov Inc., also provide ruggedized products.

Available devices cover a wide spectrum of ruggedness. Low-end ruggedized products are sometimes referred to as "enhanced commercial" or semi-rugged. At a minimum, a semi-rugged product has a hardened case of some kind. Products may use impact-resistant plastic, a metal such as magnesium or a combination of the two.

Semi-rugged products within Panasonic's Toughbook line offer additional features, such as shock-mounted hard drives — drives mounted in polymer compounds to insulate them from vibration and shock.

Similarly, Gateway will provide gel-packed hard drives at the customer's request, said Chad McDonald, senior product manager on Gateway's notebook team. Law enforcement agencies are among the organizations that have asked Gateway to ruggedize notebooks.

Products falling into the rugged category typically possess the hardened cases of the semi-rugged devices but have stronger environmental protection features. Rugged products are typically sealed against dust and water. Such products also may be able to operate in a greater range of temperatures. Intermec's 700 Series handhelds can function from minus 4 degrees to 140 degrees.

So-called fully rugged or ultra-rugged products take environmental resistance to another level. For example, while semi-rugged products have spill-resistant keyboards, fully rugged products can withstand a major dousing. Itronix's top-of-the-line GoBook Max notebook, for example, is designed to withstand rainfall at rates of up to 4 inches per hour.

Degrees and definitions of ruggedness vary from vendor to vendor. "There's no common baseline" for a ruggedized standard, said David Priddy, Symbol's area director for government programs. Some products are rated for multiple drops to concrete from three feet, and others from five feet. Some products are drop-tested at different temperatures, while others are tested at room temperature.

Defense standards may provide some guidance, but the government's switch from technical to functional specifications makes those measures less relevant today.

But commercial standards such as the International Electrotechnical Commission's Ingress Protection standard might provide a more useful way for comparing how well a product is sealed against objects and water.

The Right Tool?

A challenge — especially for rugged device neophytes — is matching the proper level of ruggedization to the task at hand. Chris Pate, business development manager for GTSI's Panasonic technology team, sees an emerging opportunity in "helping the customer choose the right technology for what they are doing."

Vendors recommend semi-rugged products for frequent travelers who need a durable device but aren't likely to subject their machines to harsh environmental pounding. Semi-rugged machines are intended for mobile professionals and can take some abuse, but they "aren't designed to be dropped time and again," according to Itronix's Turner.

Rugged devices, offering greater protection against shock as well as resistance to rain and dust, are designed for workers who use their computing devices in the field. The devices may be mounted in vehicles. Ultra-rugged or fully rugged devices, meanwhile, tend to be the choice of first responders, as in the case of the FBI's bomb response squads.

Jan O'Hara, federal director of sales at Panasonic Computer Solutions, said that military first responders — special operations and reconnaissance units — are opting for the higher level of rugged models as well.

Panasonic has long offered semi-rugged, rugged and fully rugged models, O'Hara said. But customer demand, once focused on low-end machines, is now moving upstream. "We're seeing business shift to the next two levels," she said.

GTSI's Pate sees a shift as well — not in what customers are buying but in the customers themselves. Police departments have been purchasing mobile data terminals for years, but now fire departments are eyeing rugged, portable computers, he said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided funding to fire departments for such purchases in the wake of last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "We've seen growth in that market," Pate said.

Technology Trends

Agencies evaluating ruggedized devices will discover that durability features have filtered down to smaller and lighter products. For example, Panasonic unveiled a 2.2 pound subnotebook model in September that is equipped with a shock-mounted hard drive and a magnesium alloy case.

Also on the small side are numerous ruggedized handhelds that can weigh as little as 12 ounces. Those devices include personal digital assistants, bar code scanners and devices for reading radio frequency tags.

In the past, ruggedized devices often lagged technologically behind their mainstream counterparts. This, however, is not the case with ruggedized handhelds.

Symbol's Priddy said that the current crop of devices marks a sharp departure from the handhelds of 15 years ago, which featured 8-bit architectures and proprietary operating systems.

Today, ruggedized handhelds use such commercial staples as Palm Inc.'s Palm OS and Microsoft Corp.'s Pocket PC operating platforms.

A surge in power is another handheld trend. Symbol's PDT 8000 is among the handhelds using Intel's XScale PXA250, which operates at 400 MHz. Many handhelds previously had been operating at around 100 MHz.

Color displays, a given on notebook devices, are now showing up on ruggedized handhelds. Reginald Bagby, deputy product manager for the Army's AIT effort, cited an "overall interest in color screens" among his group.

Color screens tend to be easier to read and better able to support such applications as streaming video. In September, Intermec began shipping its 700 Series Color handheld line, which is based on Microsoft Pocket PC technology and Intel's XScale chip.

A related trend is toward higher resolution and larger screens. Intermec 700 Series Color devices have a 3.8-inch screen, which the company says is 20 percent larger than most other screens. Symbol's PDT 8000 has a 3.9-inch screen. Priddy said, however, that handhelds with larger displays tend to be more susceptible to damage than those with smaller screens.

Increased integration, meanwhile, is a technology trend common to both handhelds and notebooks. Panasonic's Toughbook line can integrate such features as wireless local-area network/wide-area network communication and a smart-card reader.

Intermec's 700 series integrates up to three wireless communication options: an 802.11b radio, a Global System for Mobile Communications/General Packet Radio Service WAN radio and a Bluetooth radio.

"Not only is it rugged, but all the pieces are integrated," said George Moss, director of Intermec's government division.

Moss said that Intermec first established its ruggedized products in the commercial sector, particularly in the supply chain arena. He said his company has not been inundated with government orders, but he sees plenty of potential. "We're just on the cusp of this," he said.

Make way for the ruggedized renaissance.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

RUGGED PRICES

Semi-rugged notebook

Price range: $2,000 to $2,400

Typical features: Hardened case of impact-resistant plastic or metal such as magnesium; shock-mounted hard drive.

Typical customers: Users who frequently take computers out of the office.

***

Rugged notebook

Price range: About $3,000

Typical features: Some resistance to dust, rain and temperatures; greater protection from shock or vibration. May be mounted in vehicles.

Typical customers: Workers who often use computing devices in the field.

***

Ultra/fully rugged notebook

Price range: From $4,000 to $5,000

Typical features: Enhanced environmental sealing and shock resistance.

Typical customers: Users who must employ computers in extreme weather and in harsh climates.

***

Ruggedized handhelds

Low-end, batch-processing DOS units start at about $800.

Microsoft Corp. Pocket PC-based wireless handhelds with color displays and add-ons, such as an integrated radio frequency interrogator, range from $1,500 to $2,000.

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