Ruggedized Portables Keep Reps on the Road

"It's amazing that a 50 cent cup of coffee can short out a $3,000 notebook," remarks John Harris, vice president of marketing for Panasonic Personal Computers whose coffee cup got away from him recently. But Harris doesn't cry over spilled coffee because his laptop, although not fully ruggedized, has a spill-resistant keyboard for mishaps such as this.

For mobile professionals whose concerns extend beyond coffee on the keyboard, Panasonic has a range of ruggedized notebooks that can withstand a variety of work environments and conditions such as excessive temperatures, dust, vibrations and drops. The company's most ruggedized notebook, the Toughbook 27, has enjoyed a measure of success in the areas of utilities and law enforcement. According to Harris, the company has closed business on 900 police departments in the United states. Harris learned a lot about notebook computers while working as OEM (original equipment manufacturer) sales manager for Japan-based JVC. In the late 1980s, the company opened a computer-peripherals subsidiary in the United states, selling hard drives for notebooks, CRT displays, high resolution printing devices and CD-ROM drives. When Panasonic started making ruggedized notebooks under its own name five years ago, Harris was brought on board to head up the marketing effort and help the company position itself strategically.

"A large portion of our business involved making components for other companies," Harris explains. "We made LCD panels, floppy disc drives, CD-ROM drives, keyboards--so we really had a lot of expertise in these areas, but we never focused on selling a finished product under our own brand name." The company decided that there was a strong potential for success in the laptop market. "We wanted to go after professionals only," Harris says. "We found that there was a need for durable and reliable computers because notebook computers are really the primary business tools for professionals today. The implication is that if those tools break, then you're out of business until they're fixed, and that results in lost opportunities."

Shock Absorbent Portability
So what distinguishes Panasonic's ruggedized notebooks from those manufactured by other companies? Harris cites lower cost and a smaller form factor as two of the major considerations when comparing the Toughbook to its competitors. "This really keeps it in line with the standard notebook PC while offering a large hard drive, full screen and full windows performance. So, not only is it able to perform a dedicated MS-DOS function that another ruggedized would offer, but you can run any standard software application above and beyond that."

Also, Panasonic not only shock mounts the notebook's hard drive but also uses flexible connectors between components, so that if one component absorbs shock, it won't be transferred to another component. "A lot of companies are probably touting the magnesium case, but that really doesn't make a ruggedized computer because the internal components are still unprotected from shock." To illustrate his point, Harris makes the following comparison: "If you took an egg and put it in a metal lunch box and then dropped the box, the box would be okay, but you can imagine what would happen to the egg. So, you really have to consider the management of shock from the design stage, otherwise you're subjecting your notebook to a lot of damage."

Harris also emphasizes the importance of talking to customers before designing the product to determine exactly what their needs are. "We really want to know what the right mix is for our customers. Do they need a faster CPU, or do they prefer a touchscreen and a slower CPU?"

For companies considering the implementation of ruggedized notebooks for their field force, Harris advises an evaluation of the field workers' needs in terms of performance and durability. "If your company currently has a notebook in place, measure carefully what the damage and breakage rates are and what this implies for the business." He recommends that not only the purchasing department but the accounting or finance department get involved in determining how much the breakage of notebooks and the resulting downtime is costing the company.

Another important consideration, according to Harris, is that of wireless communications. "People still have to go to that hotel room or back to the office and plug into the wall," he notes. Panasonic is focusing on building relationships with companies that provide wireless services as well as those that make vehicle mounts and auto adapters so that customers don't feel that they're on their own when it comes to making these decisions. "This allows us to go to the customer and say, "If you're looking to go wireless or build this into a vehicle, here are some companies that can help you,' " says Harris. "Wireless technology is really the last frontier to true mobile computing."

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