In the market for… rugged smartphones
Written by: Charlotte Hathway | Published:

The cost of cracked screens and the inability to replace batteries are driving demand for rugged smartphones, but selecting the right device isn’t a simple task, as Charlotte Hathway reports.

Earlier this year, Bryan Bassett, senior research analyst at IDC, predicted that by 2023, three million rugged mobile devices will ship annually. “The number of rugged mobile devices being shipped worldwide is increasing, as enterprise organisations look to mobilise larger segments of their workforces with more durable and more capable devices,” he said.

This increased demand is being felt across the radio communications industry. John Curtis, vice-president of sales at Samsung, said: “Many organisations, including the public sector, are in the midst of technology refreshes, and looking to automate and digitise manual systems and workflows. Rugged mobile products can play a key role, as they provide a central device that enables seamless, secure access to software and apps while in the field.”

Andy Wilson, managing director at Syndico, recalled a recent visit to a well-known restaurant chain, where the waiter was using a consumer smartphone to take orders. The device didn’t even have a protective case and, noting the hard floors in the restaurant, curiosity got the better of Wilson. He asked what happens if the device is accidentally dropped on the floor. The waiter joked that it would smash into a thousand pieces! How did they know this? Because it happens regularly.

With businesses increasingly shifting towards digital, the need for rugged devices stretches beyond usual radio communications boundaries. New users are around every corner. They just need to understand the benefits.

New possibilities

Push-to-talk over Cellular (PoC) might not be new, but the market is certainly maturing as mobile broadband improves. Our previous articles on PoC found it is a good fit for logistics companies due to the (near) national coverage it offers, as well as those struggling to obtain VHF or UHF licences.

The rise of mobile form-based applications – such as the restaurant ordering functionality mentioned above – is another area where rugged devices are suitable. Businesses have woken up to mobile apps, largely due to reduced errors and improved effectiveness in the field.

When mobile working apps are required alongside push-to-talk (PTT), rugged smartphones are the obvious choice. The ability to carry just one device is often simpler for the user, and more cost-efficient for the employer.

Rugged smartphones, like their consumer counterparts, have more flexibility in terms of converging and integrating applications compared with traditional radio communications units. Samsung’s Curtis said: “Police officers can use [rugged devices] to perform a range of work functions, from capturing images or notes to communicating with colleagues, and more.”

Syndico’s Wilson highlighted the environmentally considerate mindset of today’s businesses as another factor driving increased consideration of rugged smartphones.

He explained that, because a lot of consumer-grade devices are difficult to repair, a broken screen or underperforming battery usually means a replacement. “People are much more environmentally friendly nowadays, so the thought of a device being thrown away after two years of use doesn’t sit well with them. People consider their contribution to landfill and are concerned about the precious metals being wasted.”

Being able to replace a battery, having a durable screen, or even having devices supplied via a managed service agreement – with certain guarantees around repair timescales – is a much more tempting proposition for this group of users.

Different groups of end-users will have different requirements. Those who often work outside of their organisation’s two-way radio network coverage or travel around the country, yet still have a need for PTT voice, are one example of a group of users that might benefit from a rugged smartphone. Evaluating how and where these devices will be used will inform whether dual-SIM, roaming and data costs need to be built into plans. Users might need cellular services primarily for PoC, but if they also need to upload lots of images into information-sharing systems and are often outside of the range of Wi-Fi networks, their data consumption could be more than their allowance, incurring significant costs.

The extent to which the devices will need to be used in wet conditions has implications for device selection. While use in the rain and near swimming pools necessitates a high IP rating to avoid expensive damage, it can also drive a need for touchscreens that can work when wet. This, and the ability to use touchscreens while wearing gloves, is something that is best evaluated through pilots and trials. Use far from a charging point may also drive a requirement for batteries that are easy to swap while out in the field.

There are opportunities here for two-way radio resellers to diversify into selling rugged devices, but making a success of this will require considering what to look for in a manufacturer, whether users will need additional technical support, and how to go about pitching these devices to existing customers.

Educating end-users

Organisations considering rugged smartphones will need to weigh up the possible downsides. Wilson explained that some businesses have been concerned about reduced productivity. If users have their personal apps alongside those they use for work, it could be tempting to quickly look at them during working hours. Enterprise Mobility Management-style software can counter this through locking devices so only approved apps can be installed.

Rugged smartphones are also a good option for customer-facing businesses, where staff using consumer smartphones might project a negative image regardless of what the device is being used for. A retail assistant might be doing vital work on a consumer smartphone, yet customers could assume they are texting friends or checking social media.

For Syndico’s Wilson, the next step is to ensure his company plays its role in “opening up end-users’ minds to the potential of these devices. Doctors, for example, are great at fixing broken legs and treating illnesses, but they might be unaware that they can have one device that can connect them to colleagues, work as a pager, and also offer pushto-talk for emergencies. It is not that doctor’s place to research emerging technologies, so distributors can and should be finding those end-users and showing them these technologies are available.”



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