Hardened Laptops: A New Meaning of Extreme

Laptop specialist Itronix on Monday announced that the U.S. Air Force has deployed thousands of its wireless, ruggedized laptops.

Disclaimer: While not currently a client, I have consulted for Itronix in the past.

Typically when we talk about extreme laptops we use "extreme" to mean high performance—resulting in laptops of eight pounds or more. However, ruggedized, or hardened laptops are another class of extreme machine.

On Monday, laptop maker Itronix Corp. announced that the U.S. Air Force, following in the heels of the U.S. Army last month, has deployed thousands of its wireless, rugged laptops.

These machines are designed to go where a normal notebook would have difficulty surviving, and "thin and light" means you dont need the bulk of a certain California governor to tote it. They are hefty, weighing generally over 8 pounds, and many actually have their own carrying handle. Some might consider then the anti-iBook, so you wont find them winning many beauty contests either.

Matsushita Electric Corporation of America, selling under its Panasonic ToughBook brand is the biggest player in the ruggedized-notebook market. But Spokane, Wash.-based Itronix has emerged over the last couple of years as the class leader.

How often do we see a small U.S. company kick a large Japanese conglomerates butt? Not too often, but its happening here.

Winning this market has had everything to do with sheer strength and engineering competence. And its a lucrative niche: volumes are low but prices are high. If that Acer machine I covered a few weeks ago is a Ferrari, then the Itronix box is a Hummer.

The military puts these notebooks through an amazing battery of tests—sort of a notebook boot camp—before buying.

In one grueling test done by the Air Force, as reported in Field Force Automation magazine back in 2001, only the Itronix box survived. They put laptops on the tail of an F-16 aircraft and dropped them to the tarmac. After that, a 230-pound airman stood on top of the systems for a bit. And those were the easy tests.

Then they put the laptops out on the flight line where the temperature often rose to 130 degrees. They were left running until they failed, mostly by overheating. The Itronix was the last to crash—only after its batteries had drained. What happened? Three hours later, its power cord melted.

The worst test (those with a sensitive disposition may want to skip this part) was to load up a Barney game on the machine and deploy them to kids at a pool. The tots actually played the program underwater—and surprisingly the Itronix survived even though there were other (unnamed) notebooks in the test apparently that didnt.

Along with an exterior that takes a licking and keeps on ticking, these devices pack other interesting features. For example, they generally have more than one wireless radio, an 802.11 variant, along with a GSM or CDMA-based packet radio.

The Itronix machine uses software from a company called NetMotion Wireless Inc. to seamlessly transition from one wireless network to another without losing its connection. That something very few notebooks of any kind can do today.

Another technology that really sold the military—where insecure "wireless" has been a four letter word—is from Telos Corp. The company specializes in wireless security, a business that should keep them very popular for the foreseeable future.

Telos has an advanced smart card solution that uses biometrics and public-key infrastructure approved by the U.S. Department of Defense for this kind of use and was critical to the win.

In the current environment, wireless products without approved security will simply not make it to first base with the military.

/zimages/6/28571.gifCheck out eWEEKs Mobile & Wireless Center at http://wireless.eweek.com for the latest news, reviews and analysis.

The companys success hasnt gone unnoticed in the market, and a disinformation campaign recently started up, with whispers stating that Itronix doesnt do its own product development. I recently visited the company, and discussed the rumor with their engineers. He dispelled the notion.

As much as things change, they stay the same, but at least the Army and Air Force werent fooled. In a world that seems increasingly dominated by large companies, its nice to see a small firm kick some butt now and then.

Disclaimer: While not currently a client, I have consulted for Itronix in the past.

Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.