Part of the reduction was due to the economy, while the rest was from businesses questioning the need for ruggedized gear, according to a study.
Ruggedized notebook sales fell 27 percent in the first quarter of 2015 compared with the same period one year ago, which shrank the market to the smallest it has been in four years, according to new report from VDC Research.
The report, VDC's Rugged Mobile Quarterly Tracker, explained that the drop was due to a growing trend of enterprises re-evaluating their requirements for fully rugged machines and instead opting for semi-rugged or non-ruggedized consumer-grade devices, as well as due to spending cuts by companies worried about the economy.
In the first quarter, the rugged notebook market fell 27 percent from the same period last year to less than $200 million in sales, wrote Kathryn Nassberg, VDC's lead analyst for mobile hardware. That drop erased nearly all gains from the growth the rugged market enjoyed in 2014 due to the retirement of Windows XP, which meant new devices had to be purchased.
Nassberg told eWEEK
in an interview that businesses today are re-evaluating their needs and asking whether the rugged machines for which they paid a premium in the past are needed by some of their employees in the future.
"They are asking just how rugged is rugged and how rugged do we need them to be" when it comes time for replacement, she said. "There are environments where you need ultra-rugged or rugged; that's not going away. But in other businesses where it's not as stringent, they are looking and asking if they really need a rugged device."
In other cases, she said, there are still concerns about spending for such devices in budgets since the recession of 2008, which still leaves some worries. "People are still mindful, even though the economy has been growing in the U.S. compared to the last several years."
Some IT buyers are also looking at the idea that the devices have a shorter life span and maybe should be replaced with cheaper, non-rugged consumer devices since they will be quickly replaced anyway, she said.
"If it breaks, we'll just replace it and still come out ahead with minimal disruption," is the attitude of some IT professionals recently, she said. "I think they are looking at the value proposition when it comes to fully rugged."
Where data collection via bar codes and RFID tags isn't being done under severe conditions, that's where companies are looking to replace more costly rugged devices with cheaper consumer-grade devices, she said.
The shrinkage in the market in the first quarter "actually took me by surprise," Nassberg said. "We're not so sure what's going to happen."
In 2014, the rugged device market had a "pretty significant bump" upward due to the replacement of old Windows XP devices, she said, while today's devices will likely be able to get free Windows 10 updates, which will decrease sales further.
"We're anticipating that it's not going to be a great year for rugged notebooks," she said.
The rugged handheld market, which continues to dominate the total rugged market at more than $550 million, saw relatively flat performance, with year-over-year growth of 2 percent from last year's first quarter, according to VDC. In the North American market, however, sales were good with a third consecutive quarter of year-over-year growth of nearly 30 percent, compared with a weakening European market, which tumbled 20 percent during the same period, the report stated.