FedEx to adopt rugged handhelds from Motorola

New MC9500s will be rolled out to 100,000 drivers in three years

NEW YORK CITY -- Fedex plans to roll out up to 100,000 of Motorola Inc.'s new MC9500 rugged mobile handhelds in the next two to three years, making it the fourth-generation of mobile computers used by Fedex couriers and workers in package warehouses.

The MC9500, announced earlier today and already shipping, will offer features Fedex has not had in its handhelds, including GPS. It also offers enhancements that could be critical, including the ability to swap out radios to work with different wireless carriers as needed, Fedex representatives said today after Motorola's announcement here.

"This is a high-end device, and has everything but the kitchen sink," said Matthew Berardi, managing director of field technology for FedEx Ground.

The MC9500 comes in four versions, priced from $2,495 to $3,295, Motorola said at its event at New York's Museum of Arts and Design. One primary distinction in the four versions is the ability to swap out four different keypads, depending on use, so that the keypad can offer more numeric or more alphabetic functions as needed.

Berardi called the pricing appropriate for a high-end, rugged device. Fedex declined to comment on the total cost of the rollout the project. Pricing for the MC9500 will also vary depending on the number of units shipped, Motorola officials said.

A key value for Fedex is the MC9500's high level of ruggedness: it can be dropped and submerged in water and will still operate, said Ken Pasley, IT director of wireless technologies for FedEx. Motorola officials showed a video of workers slamming the MC9500 to the ground, driving a vehicle over it, dunking it in a fish pool and even using it as an ice scraper on a windshield. In one video segment, firefighters dropped it from a height of 85 feet and still were able to boot it and use it.

"I can tell you that every one of those ... scenarios will be encountered at FedEx," Pasley said. FedEx currently uses a custom-made device from Motorola, commonly referred to as the PowerPad.

Berardi and Pasley said the GPS will be valuable for tracking vehicles and drivers, offering even better real-time package tracking for customers. And the MC9500's ability to work on faster 3.5G networks -- including HSDPA and EVDO Rev. A -- and greater efficiencies with scanning and data capture could allow for faster deliveries.

For example, a courier arriving at an office building and finding a larger-than-normal load of packages can communicate that information quicker, allowing the company to order up larger trucks or aircraft to speed up the delivery process.

A new battery meter will also help lower costs and prevent drivers from picking up units with dead batteries when starting a shift. The technology is something Motorola picked up from batteries in consumer devices. In addition, a failed battery will be indicated with an X. Motorola estimated that the battery meter and power management features in the MC9500 would help save 2,600 hours annually for 600 users.

Berardi also said that Motorola's plans, also unveiled today, for making charging stations modular, will improve efficiency and lower floor space in back rooms where dozens or hundreds of devices are charged overnight. The modules can be rack-mounted or wall-mounted, saving space and reducing cable clutter.

Pasley said FedEx expects to lessen its costs for mobile computing with the new devices, but the exact amount hasn't yet been calculated.

More important to FedEx are features that Pasley said will "improve functionality" for customers, such as an accelerometer in the MC9500 that allows a delivery driver to hold the device in any direction to capture a signature, he said. The new touchscreen is also color and will be larger than those in other devices, which should make it easier for customers to use, he said.

The MC9500 also includes video software that could be tapped in the future, said Marieke Wijtkamp, vice president of marketing at Librestream, an integrator based in Winnipeg.

Wijtkamp said older rugged handhelds could not support video the way the MC9500 does. She envisioned video capabilities allowing doctors to examine patients remotely in a prison or at an accident scene. Currently, Librestream is offering an application that would allow a technician to photograph a piece of equipment and then use a stylus to highlight an area of the photograph that can be shared wirelessly and collaborate in a recorded voice session with other technicians.

Joseph Robinson, vice president of marketing for Salamander Technologies in Traverse City, Mich., a mobile integrator for public safety and related industries, said the MC9500 will help rescue workers in the field, especially given the ability to quickly swap out different radios and monitor battery life.

"Battery management can be a royal pain for paramedics who are putting bandages on bloody wounds," he said. "These are people with knees in the mud and hands in the blood."

The MC9500 should perform well in the market, said David Krebs, a wireless analyst at VDC Research in Natick, Mass. He said part of the reason is that it builds on the success of the Motorola MC9000, which is the industry's best-selling rugged handheld, with 1.5 million units shipped. The new MC9500 is lighter and more ergonomic, and will have power management features that are unique in the market. (The device turns off when it's placed face down, for example.)

Motorola currently has about 40% of the total market for rugged handhelds; Intermec follows with less than 20%; and Psion and LXE each have less than 10%, Krebs said.

Growth in rugged device industry is robust, despite the sour economy, he said. Krebs estimated that 300 million workers globally will be equipped with rugged devices by 2012, more than double current levels.

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