At a time when both business users and consumers are turning away from desktops and embracing more mobile computing, a handful of laptop vendors are looking to take this trend one step further.
Rugged mobile computing, whether with semi-rugged laptops or full rugged machines, is expanding at time when laptops have now exceeded desktops in terms of both shipments and revenue for PC vendors.
In the third quarter of 2008, for the first time ever, global notebook PC shipments exceeded desktop shipments, according to data from iSupply. The trend continued into the fourth quarter, exceeding desktop shipments by 3 percent.
Now that every major PC vendor is shipping laptops, many are looking for smaller, but highly specific areas to move into next.
One of those areas is mobile workstations.
The other is rugged and semi-rugged laptops.
While rugged and semi-rugged laptops have always had a place with the military, utilities, and local and state law enforcement, these machines are also being used in the health care industry, since can they take spills and can be cleaned. At the same time, the federal stimulus package is expected to put money into the hands of construction companies, which may in turn buy new laptops to help with green-lighted projects.
"There's a greater movement toward mobility, and more players are looking toward niches in the rugged market," said Richard Shim, an analyst with IDC.
Dell, he points out, is a recent entrant, looking to compete against Panasonic-an old pro when it comes to rugged computing thanks to its Toughbook line.
The rugged market is also ill-defined, explains Shim.
Military specifications, or mil-specs, were designed by the military to communicate their needs to vendors, and they refer, for example, to how durable or watertight a device is, or whether it's safe to use in a combustible environment.
"You can meet some aspects of mil-spec and not others," said Shim. "So someone can say, -We're rugged, we meet mil-spec,' but you still have to ask how many specifications, and which ones? There's [no governing body] to enforce the standard."
Nonetheless, the benefit of moving into the rugged space, said Shim, is that "there are higher prices and better margins, as compared to the traditional notebook market."
The impact of the overall economy is another reason for the rugged growth.
"People want to get more life out of their systems," said Shim. "The concept of -good enough' computing is past. Devices have enough performance power, and now it's just a matter of taking care of them so they can last."
In the past few weeks, a number of PC vendors-Dell, Panasonic, Motion Computing and General Dynamics Itronix-have all released new rugged devices. eWEEK has a sampling of some recently released rugged devices, along with a quick look at a few-but by no means all-of their features.