The Clipper Race for Your Life and the Future of rugged computers

Rugged laptops haven't evolved much in the past two decades. But now that Dell is taking the segment seriously, we could seem some real advancements in the art for these systems.

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We don’t talk about rugged laptops very much, largely because these machines are almost exclusively used by a unique group of individuals: military personnel, first responders, law enforcement, petrochemical workers, field engineers and field technicians. The people that keep us safe and keep our critical infrastructure working.

We tend to talk more about what these people do than what they use to do it with.  I think this is a shame, because I also think that, largely thanks to Apple, we went way the hell too far to make our laptops sexy and abandoned the idea of making them robust.  We even gave up ports and nice keyboards in an effort to make them super thin and, as I type this, I’m thinking we may have missed a meeting.

The reason I bring this up is I was on a sailing ship this week care of Dell as part of the Clipper Race for Your Life event this week in New York. [Disclosure: Dell is a client of the author.] This is kind of an amazing event in that it costs crew members around $70K each for the privilege of working 12-hour days and seven-day weeks for months. All without heat or air conditioning on the open seas as these sailing ships circumnavigate the globe.

To say this is an adventure would be an understatement (they’ve run into waves up to 70 feet). It’s a life-changing experience for many. It’s also good for the figure (you lose around 30 pounds on average on the trip).

These ships depend on two military-grade rugged Dell computers to make the voyage: one for social media, and one that manages the ship. Interesting story: one of the ships was hit by lighting, which took out all the instruments and the generator…but the rugged laptop wasn’t even bothered. The damn things are built like tanks. But they haven’t evolved very much over the years. I expect that now that Dell is taking the segment seriously, they’ll come around to the idea that we could advance the art for these systems quite a bit.

Stuck in the past

Panasonic has dominated this segment for years with their Toughbook line…which is interesting, because their commercial and consumer lines largely failed in market. They haven’t advanced the art much over the years at all, and this entire class of PCs has languished.

On the positive side (for buyers not vendors), this results in really low churn in market. On the negative side, this has left us with configurations that aren’t that much different than the machines of one or two decades ago. They still sport serial and parallel ports, and the ports tend to create problems for the integrity of the device. In addition, given the rest of the market moved on, driver support has become problematic.

Another issue – and this was pointed out by the ship captain I spoke with – is that when these things fail, it’s largely because someone left the waterproof door covering the port open and moisture got in causing the laptop to fail. Over the years, I’ve also heard stories of employees standing on them to keep their feet dry not realizing that they push air out of the case when the step on it and pull air in when they step off. If the laptop is under water in that situation, it’s water that comes in, not air, and thus you get a failure. 

A lot of the reasons not to innovate are the same ones we had in the enterprise segment – they had to connect to some legacy crap. But we found ways to eliminate the legacy ports and advance the hardware in the enterprise anyway. Now we’re even blending in consumer elements, something that was thought to be impossible a few years back.  Given Dell isn’t Panasonic, and does innovate, I think we’ll see some unique offerings from them shortly.

Rugged evolution

What caught my attention is that this class has a waterproof docking connector. So why not eliminate the port risk and put the ports on an accessory that hooks to the bottom of the laptop where the docking connector is?  This way if the ports are compromised, you only have to replace the accessory and not the entire laptop. You could still provide waterproof doors for the accessory, but you could create a far more robust case that folks actually could stand on in the rain and not cause as many issues. 

Another direction they could go is to make them headless and wearable. The big move in a variety of segments is toward an AR (augmented reality) solution…so why not consider a configuration that doesn’t have a screen and is instead designed to work with a rugged AR headset or visor? This would free up the hands for tools or weapons and make the user far more mobile.

As they are, these laptops are huge and take critical seconds to deploy and pack up. If they were worn and connected to a heads-up display, the user would have near-instant access. The time saved and increased flexibility for the user could significantly reduce risk and aggravation. 

One of the places Dell has innovated with their existing lines is in the use of such advanced materials as carbon fiber. Applied here, this would not only potentially reduce the weight of these things but, done right, might make the class more attractive to wider audiences, such as race mechanics (some use them now), sports officials or even individual users.  (A few years back, I convinced a Panasonic competitor to create a Hummer rugged laptop that was sold in Hummer dealerships.  According to them it sold very well).

Wrapping up:  It’s time to evolve rugged

I had a great time on the sailing ship, they let me helm for much of it (I grew up on the water and raced when I was young). And while I was impressed by how they used their rugged laptops, I also was reminded of how little they have changed over the years. Dell is all about innovation, and I think with them involved in segment, we’ll begin to see some much-needed advancements in our future. They already have wrapped these things with world-wide services, a specialized hardened support organization for government and the Dell sales force.  

There’s a chance that, given those kinds of improvements, in the future I might even lust after one of these. We’ll see. 

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