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Rugged Android Handhelds and Tablets

While the iOS and Android rule consumer smartphones and tablets, the situation is far less clear in vertical markets. Will Microsoft continue to play a role, or will it be all Apple and Android? (by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

The tablets and handhelds listed in the righthand column on this page are the first rugged/vertical market devices available with Android. Android is the operating system platform that successfully emulated Apple's ground-breaking iOS with its capacitive multi-touch interface that allowed for effortless panning, zooming, rotating, etc., Apple's "apps" infrastructure, and even the hardware and software layout of Apple products.

Android, however, is no mere copy. It came from people who knew a lot about mobile operating systems. The man behind the project was Andy Rubin who had worked at Apple, Magic Cap, WebTV and then Danger, where they developed the HipTop internet phone. Google bought Android in 2005 and the platform is now handled by the Open Handset Alliance. In just a few years, Android has become the dominant smartphone OS. Android had a tougher job on the tablet side where it still trails the Apple iPad by a considerable margin.

Android offers a number of opportunities and challenges.

The opportunity lies in the fact that Android has managed to become the de-facto standard in non-Apple smartphones. Hundreds of millions already know how to use Android devices, sharply reducing training needs. And Google is offering the use of Android for free. In price-sensitive markets, not having to pay a license fee can make or break a product.

Among Android's challenges are fragmentation and legal issues. Fragmentation is a problem because it makes the Android market nowhere near as cohesive as it appears to be, with platforms being left behind, developers forced to adapt to multiple versions, and so on. Among legal issues are Microsoft's success in extracting license fees from Android vendors, the (by now largely defused) Oracle patent infringement lawsuit against Google, and seemingly endless suits between Apple and major Android vendors. Fortunately, as of early 2017, most of the law suits seemed to have been settled.

Overall, while the operating platform race appears to have been run in consumer smartphones, it's still unclear which OS will come out on top in mobile computing on the handheld and on the tablet sides. For high-end tablets, Windows 7 and 8/8.1 still look like a good and safe bet, and things look even better under Windows 10 (introduced summer 2015). For ruggedized versions of consumer media tablets, a lot continues to depend on the iPad's staying power as well as on whether or not Microsoft's tablet plans come to full fruition. Initially it didn't look that way, but then Microsoft's Surface tablets, which morphed into an entire product line in Fall 2015, became a sizable business. It also depends on whether developers and customers will trust Android as a reliable, dependable and, most of all, secure platform.

As is, as of early 2017 there is still the small but steady increase in Android based mobile device introductions that began around 2012. In most instances, though, manufacturers continue to hedge their bets by offering the devices either with Android or with a Microsoft OS. But while Android seemed to be gathering steam in tablets three or four years ago, now we see more strength on the Windows side. Mobile computing historians may recall a similar situation some 25 years ago when, until Microsoft prevailed, pen computers were offered with either PenPoint or Windows for Pen Computing (though Android abviously did not encounter PenPoint's fate).

The background of Android's vertical market emergence

For many years, almost all vertical, enterprise and industrial market tablets were running some version of Microsoft Windows. Even when new consumer market PCs were sold with Windows 8/8.1 and then Windows 10, in the vertical markets tablets and notebooks were still offered with a variety of Microsoft operating systems. Most stayed with Windows 7 long after Windows 10 was introduced, and many came with various embedded versions of Windows. Some came with Windows 8/8.1 or Windows 10, but also had a Windows 7 "downgrade" option. The latter "loophole" is becoming less available as Intel's "Kaby Lake" 7th generation Core processors do not officially support anything before Windows 10.

On the handheld side of things, the situation was, and as of early 2017 remains, needlessly complicated and uncertain. That's because while the great majority of all consumer smartphones run Android (and premium smartphones iOS), an amazing number of vertical market handhelds hung on to the by now ancient Windows Mobile, which was later renamed to Windows Embedded Handheld) 6.5x.

Microsoft never offered an upgrade path when Windows Phone 7 turned out to be totally consumer-oriented and not backward-compatible with older Windows Mobile applications. And all Windows Phone 7 devices had to have a capacitive touch screen, and that at the time meant no gloves. So Windows Phone 7 clearly was not the future for industrial handhelds, and though Microsoft eventually came out with Windows Embedded Compact 7 and Windows Embedded Handheld 8.1 it was too little too late.

What also complicated matters was that Microsoft moved the Windows Mobile group into the Windows Embedded business, and thus separated it from the Windows Phone group. So for now, we still have Windows Mobile 6.5 (also known as Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5) as well as Windows Embedded Compact 7. As a result, Windows Phone 8 was not only incompatible with the old Windows Mobile, but also with Microsoft's own Windows Phone 7.x.

Many then expected Windows Phone 8 to have an impact on the vertical mobile handheld market as it represented a clean break with anything that came before it, and also shared components with Windows 8. Unfortunately, the dim reception of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 meant that most verticals stayed with the by now very old WEH 6.5, or tried Android.

All of this may change with Windows 10. As of early 2017, the clumsily named Windows 10 IoT Mobile Enterprise is theoretically the successor of the old Windows Mobile/Embedded Handheld. But with Microsoft's Nokia Lumina experiment over, we're seeing very little adoption of Windows 10 in any form on handhelds. And so the Windows/Android battle in industrial and vertical markets has now tilted quite decisively in Android's favor.

Unfortunately, Android continues to suffer from version fragmentation and almost exclusive focus on smartphones at the expense of larger form factors. And this may leave the door open for Windows to make a comeback.

--Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Rugged Android Handhelds
  • 2T N4
  • Amrel APEX AH53
  • Amrel DF7A
  • ADLINK IMX-2000 Rugged Handheld
  • Arbor Gladius 5
  • Arbor Gladius GT-500
  • Bluebird Pidion BM-170 smartphone
  • Bluebird Pidion BM-180 smartphone
  • Bluebird Pidion BIP-6000 handheld
  • Bluebird EF500/EF500R handheld
  • Cedar CMP1
  • Cedar CT5
  • CipherLab RS30
  • Handheld Group Nautiz X1
  • Handheld Group Nautiz X2
  • Handheld Group Nautiz X4
  • Handheld Group Nautiz X8
  • Honeywell Dolphin 75e
  • Honeywell Dolphin 7800 for Android
  • Janam XM5
  • Janam XM70
  • Janam XT1
  • Janam XT2
  • Intermec CN51
  • Opticon H27
  • Panasonic Toughpad FZ-N1
  • Panasonic Toughpad FZ-X1
  • Spectralink PIVOT 87
  • Trimble Juno T41 handheld
  • SDG Systems RAMPAGE 6
  • Unitech PA700
  • Unitech PA700V
  • Unitech PA692A
  • Winmate C350T Rugged Handheld
  • Winmate 3.7" Rugged Handheld
  • Winmate E430T Rugged Handheld
  • Winmate E430M2 Rugged Handheld
  • Winmate S430T Rugged Handheld
  • Zebra TC5 Series
  • Zebra TC55 touch computer
  • Zebra TC70 touch computer
  • Zebra TC70x touch computer
  • Zebra TC75 touch computer
  • Rugged Android Tablets
  • 2T N4
  • ARBOR Gladius 8
  • ARBOR Gladius 0830
  • Cedar CT7
  • DLI 9000 rugged tablet
  • Getac Z710 rugged tablet
  • Harris RF-3590 rugged tablet
  • Janam XT1
  • Motorola ET1 Enterprise Tablet
  • Panasonic Toughpad FZ-A2
  • Panasonic Toughpad FZ-B1
  • Panasonic Toughpad FZ-B2
  • RuggON PA-501
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab Active
  • Unitech TB100
  • Unitech TB120
  • Winmate M700DT4 Rugged Tablet
  • Winmate M101M4 Rugged Tablet
  • Xplore XSlate D10
  • Rugged Android Panels
  • Ubiqconn MT7000
  • Android Info
  • Android Compatibility Program
  • Android Open Source Project
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