Are We Rugged Enough Yet? Ask the Dial Tone Team

I’ve had the privilege to serve on a leading team of rugged tablet innovators since 2001 – first with Motion Computing and now with Xplore, which acquired Motion in April 2015. Over the years, we’ve been pioneers in developing and shipping tablet PCs (and only tablet PCs) to serve global customers across many industrial verticals. As such, we’ve generated intellectual property, and my colleagues and I hold numerous patents in this space. Though I’ve experienced many rugged mobile moments with customers and colleagues alike, there’s one moment that has stuck with me for over a decade:

In the early 2000s, Motion acquired capital from Venture Capital firms such as NEA (New Enterprise Associates), a top-flight company that not only provides funds but also expertise to tech companies. As part of the VC process, they sent their top technical guy to review our rugged tablet R&D team’s intellectual property. That “guy” was Nobel Laureate Arno Penzias. He was a principal at Bell Labs during their technical heydays of the 1960s and 1970s. During that time, his discoveries lead to the Big Bang Theory. (Not the TV show; the actual origins-of-the-universe Big Bang Theory. His work earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978.) So when he walked into our doors in Austin, Texas, to review our patents, I sure felt that my “little” patents on tablet technology were insignificant! He reassured me they weren’t.

It wasn’t just the honor of meeting such a brilliant mind that stuck with me, though. Every time I think of that day, I also think of this Bell Labs story and its relevance to our rugged tablet customers today:

In the early days of telephone service, when you picked up the receiver, an operator would ask you who you were trying to reach. But during the transition to direct dialing, AT&T introduced the dial tone that we all know today to let you know when the network was ready for you to dial. At first, there was a delay between picking up the handset and when you heard the dial tone. Maybe 2-3 seconds. So Bell Labs assigned some of their engineers the task of speeding up the dial tone connection. This dedicated team worked diligently – and only – on this dial tone speed. Over the years, they made regular improvements and were able to make the dial tone available in under a second. Yet that still wasn’t enough to satisfy the engineering department.

As the story goes, years later a new manager inquired about the purpose of the dial tone department and found that they were setting annual improvement goals for themselves, even though dial tones were regularly appearing in under 100 milliseconds (1/10 of a second)! There’s no way that you and I can even pick up the phone that fast. Effectively, by the time anyone got the headset to their ear, there was a dial tone. Their mission had beenaccomplished, yet they continued to over-engineer for years. Great engineering, but misplaced mission because of the singular focus.

This story rang true to me because, as an engineer, I appreciate the technical skills to work on a nationwide network and make the steady improvements required. I understand the desire of engineers to set goals and then drive to them. But for engineering to have value, it must be done within the context of the whole system. Guruprasad Madhavan’s book Applied Minds addresses how engineers think and approach problems; designing bridges, ATM networks and the ZIP code system are similar endeavors. One of the similarities is that they are designed within a set of constraints, and designed to solve a system-wide

Rugged tablet engineering is no different. Rugged PC design is more than just creating a durable device. Encasing a tablet PC in a ton of concrete would make it rugged, but not useful. It must also be mobile. However, making it rugged and mobile means engineering solutions for several extreme use cases – the tamest of which is use outdoors in bright sunlight, heat and cold conditions. There are ways to solve these problems (relatively) easily by using power, but at the expense of battery power consumption. Limited battery runtime is not consistent with a mobile workflow.

So while we want to consider – and engineer a product viable for – every customer’s unique requirements, there’s always a threshold that helps us manage engineering goals. Consider the MilSpec and IP Ratings of rugged tablet PCs, for example. Just because every single rugged tablet can be engineered to an IP67 total water and dust ingress protection level doesn’t mean that every public safety official, utility lineman or manufacturing shop floor manager that requires a rugged tablet requires that much rugged protection – or the associated size and weight – right now, or ever. On the other hand, an IP67 rugged tablet could be exactly what a soldier in the field demands for operational success.

That’s why Xplore has not only engineered the most ultra-rugged tablet in the world, but also the broadest range of rugged and fully rugged tablets to offer you more right-fit and right-price options. For example, at a mere 2.4lbs we can give you a powerful IP65 rated, 10.1” rugged tablet that offers high-speed communications and data processing for up to 20 hours non-stop. This tough tablet can also survive drops from above waist level in wet, cold, hot, and dusty environments. But yet, this tablet isn’t our most ultra-rugged. It may be the perfect size for your line of business, though.

(In fact, some of our most rugged mobile moments have been random acts of extreme fun with IP54 or IP65 tablet PCs such as this Polar Vortex freeze and ride through the car wash.)

The point? While there’s always been a race to engineer the most rugged tablets on Earth – a feat that Xplore has successfully overcome for many years – smart manufacturers will also realize that you must strike a balance between offering enough rugged protection, enough mobility and full computing capabilities. That balance varies from industry to industry and customer to customer, despite many manufacturers’ marketing efforts to convince you that a “one-spec-fits-all” design is right for your line of work. Expensive “mobile PC” systems that are so heavy that they are no longer mobile only hurt your productivity and work accuracy. And any rugged mobile computer developed using a belt-and-suspenders approach is costing you greatly.

That’s why we always stop when we have engineered the right amount of ruggedness and then re-focused on improving the rest of your mobile computing experience. By “right-sizing” the physical and PC components of each of our tablets, we’ve helped customers in many vertical sectors worldwide become rugged enough to mobilize their most critical operations in the office, in their vehicles, and in Hazardous Locations alike.