True Story: How Field Service First Got a Handle on Mobility (Thanks to Hospitals)

Bezel-less laptops, smartphones, tablets and TVs are the epitome of beautiful design. They are also the culmination of years of engineering efforts to make electronic devices as lightweight as they can be while offering the largest possible screen.

The pressure to be svelte, to minimize a device’s physical volume, while offering larger screens has been around for decades. And, while consumers love the sleeker devices revealed with every new product generation, there’s a love-hate relationship among engineers and product designers. There is also a lot of peer pressure to “do better” with each design component.

Peer pressure? Among engineers? I used to joke that while we appreciate a good personality among executives and marketers, the “ideal” engineer has no personality. Someone once told me that they thought I had a good personality, and I replied, “I am an engineer. To imply that I have a personality is an insult!” And yet, I can tell you, engineers are heavily influenced by their peers and a drive to deliver the top products on the market. For example, engineers are constantly striving to produce the densest circuit boards or design devices with the thinnest wall thickness among those featuring aluminum or plastic cases. All because customers want lighter devices.

That being said, mobile device design is not always about size. Or, should I say it’s not only about size. At least not for device manufacturers selling to folks who spend all day on their feet: the highly mobile device users. (Think about those in field service, manufacturing, energy, transportation, public safety and the military, just to name a few.) For this market segment, many of the product design decisions are focused on improving ease of handling. Thus the reason why the Xplore F5m rugged tablet literally features a handle.

However, you might be surprised to learn that the F5 model wasn’t the first rugged tablet with a handle. That’s because traditional field-based workers weren’t the only ones struggling to manage a tablet alongside their other “tools” early on in the mobile computing days – or the first who vocalized their frustration with this juggling act. It was nurses and others in healthcare who spent their days on foot.

Fun fact on Motion C5

The origins of “the tablet with the top handle”
About 10 years ago, Intel Corporation approached a number of computer manufacturers with an idea for a Mobile Clinical Assistant (MCA) – a completely mobile solution that would basically replace the traditional clipboard-based patient charts. The idea was to create a more streamlined and secure records management system that would improve provider productivity by allowing access to “important patient information including digital images and patient history details” both at the point of care and in the back-office for billing and other applications. Intel had already developed the software; they just needed someone to engineer a mobile PC platform to deliver it. Though other manufacturers quickly dismissed Intel’s proposal for one reason or another, rugged tablet OEM Motion Computing* immediately recognized the value of this the first-of-its-kind technology concept. It was the perfect opportunity to address an underserved healthcare IT market. The Motion team immediately got to work with Intel to bring the concept to life. Within a matter of months, these Solution Architects engineered the original Mobile Clinical Assistant – which you know better now as the Xplore C5.

What’s even more noteworthy is the team’s attention to detail and emphasis on quality during the development and testing stages. It was a first-generation product. Really, the first of its kind in the entire technology market. Some engineers may have been willing to compromise on certain features or capabilities just to be the fastest to market. The C5 design team was more focused on getting the tablet solution right the first time. In fact, they spent months consulting with potential end-users – clinicians, nurses, even a healthcare advisory board convened specifically for this project – to understand not just the workflows, but the nuances of their day-to-day movements. They knew that they needed to build in a barcode scanner to allow for fast capture of patient wristband data and a camera to aid with visual documentation for electronic medical records (EMR/EHR). They also knew that an integrated top handle would improve tablet management while bedside better than a case and strap accessory. The attached handle would also allow the tablet to be securely carried in hand or hung on a hook outside patient rooms for shared access. On top of all that, the tablet needed to be rugged enough to survive amidst what they expected to be frequent drops and exposure to fluids and other contaminants. It also needed to be easy to sanitize, which at the time meant that it needed to be white (which was considered ideal for sanitation purposes). Of course, it also needed a secure mounting option for when users needed to put it down on the cart, or even an office desk, for more data intensive tasks or file transfers.

Did you know?
The C5/F5 rugged tablet’s design – which is a fan favorite among customers – did not enjoy equal fanfare among device designers right away. While the top handle looks normal now, it was controversial 10 years ago. It didn’t fit the “norm” for mobile device design, and engineers still “had” to make the most efficient use of space to meet the market’s size and volume demands – which were approximately a 10-inch screen and 3.3 lbs.

Fortunately for Intel, the healthcare industry and – we’d soon learn – every field-based worker in every industry: The engineering team not only brilliantly delivered the C5 mobile and mountable solution, they set a new standard in rugged tablet design that has yet to be matched in the last decade. They figured out how to work these mandatory features into what would become a not-so-traditional tablet design without comprising other requirements such as reliable connectivity, data input tools (i.e. pen touch) and the usual CPU and drive considerations. They even determined that if users braced the already lightweight tablet at their hip versus carrying it down by their side with arms extended that it would become even lighter and easier to hold for longer periods of time.

Now, these may seem like tiny considerations, but they certainly went a long way in establishing a precedent in mobile computing. In fact, it wasn’t long after the C5 started garnering nationwide media attention and widespread healthcare industry adoption that Motion started fielding requests from those in the construction industry. Builders and architects found the top-handle rugged tablet platform perfect for their work environment. There was one catch, though. The white tablet wasn’t going to cut it at construction sites where dirt, dust and other debris are par for the course. So, the rugged tablet engineers went back to work to make a few design changes to the C5 to accommodate these customer requests. And, that’s how the black “dirt friendly” F5 model (now the Xplore F5) was born.  

meet the Xplore Engineers

It was because of one customer request 10 years ago (and an engineering team willing to accommodate such custom requests) that tens of thousands of utility, construction, retail, energy, manufacturing and even military sector users gained the one mobile technology tool that – to this day – consistently enables them to excel at their jobs. In fact, the F5m tablet lineup has been so successful, it is one of the reasons Xplore continues to innovate around this specific tablet design. The fast and ongoing adoption of “the rugged tablet with the handle” has led engineers to integrate much faster processers and state-of-the-art radios, achieve stingier power use, add a bridge battery function, and much more over the years. They’ve succeeded every time. So much so that the current Xplore F5m model still retains the same external size – the form factor – as the original F5. That means that any and all accessories that original F5 customers purchased 10 years ago – like docks, batteries, and vehicle mounts – still work. Can you say that about any other mobile device – or computer – on the market?

F5 rugged tablet accessory compatibility

And, though both the C5 and F5 may have gone through many iterations of its internal components over the years, they have always featured an internal barcode scanner with the imager window at the right side of the handle and activation buttons right where your thumb falls. They have always boasted the right antenna placement as well. After all, it is that functional, customer-defined engineering that has enabled the C5/F5 to retain its appeal.

Indeed, the C5/F5 rugged tablet platform demonstrates Xplore’s maniacal focus on serving customer needs. Some even argue that no single rugged tablet has better served such a wide market segment in history than this platform. Whether you agree or not, there’s no arguing against the fact that the F5m is a magnificent engineering feat in the world of mobile computing. It is also proof that, if you really know your customers and truly want to serve their best interests, then you can and should have the courage to make design decisions based on what they want, not peer designers’ opinions.

To learn more about how to find mobile solutions that are engineered to meet REAL customers’ specifications and solve your very real business problems,  check out the conversation that Xplore’s John Graff recently had with Group Mobile President Darrin White and Field Technologies Online Editor Sarah Nicastro. 

Shop Smarter: How to Effectively Map Out Your Next Mobility Project
Buying mobile technology for use in a professional work environment is very different from buying a device for personal use. Sifting through the multitude of mobile device variations is far from simple. But, it’s not impossible. Even better, you don’t need extensive IT resources to source an effective mobility solution. You just need to know how to evaluate and buy mobile devices the right way for your environment. 

Watch the Replay

* Xplore acquired Motion Computing assets in April 2015 - Learn more.