How a Niche Market Need for Tablets 20 Years Ago Has Evolved into Mass Market Demand Today

Our team is often asked by investors, customers, media, analysts, and other tech enthusiasts about why Xplore chose to focus exclusively on rugged tablets 20 years ago – and why we’ve stayed true to that form factor ever since. They want to know: Why did Xplore spend nearly 18 months perfecting a pen-based tablet computer when – even in 1996 – notebooks were already deemed by many to be sufficient enough to fill a the business mobility gap? That’s certainly a fair question considering that – as and former Pen Computing Magazine editor Conrad Blickenstorf remembers it – “by and large, handhelds and tablets were very far removed from the booming world of desktop computers and laptops and printers and the latest of absolutely-must-have PC software.”

Read what Conrad had to say about his first introduction to Xplore rugged tablets at CES 1997, and see the “First Look” article that Pen Computing published introducing the “impressive new system”.

Read the Article

The answer simply put: Notebooks weren't really that mobile (weighing in at 7-8 lbs) and, therefore, still left a gap that field-service centric utilities, public safety agencies, and other “walking and working” industries were desperately trying to close. Admittedly, early notebooks were an improvement on the massive, multi-piece desktops of the time. (Remember the ones that took up the entire desk? They clearly put mobile workers at a disadvantage, leaving them dependent on paper-based processes that were prone to data entry errors, records loss, and productivity delays.) But from the beginning, notebooks couldn't completely serve mobile workers who needed continuity of information and applications when on foot. They were too heavy, so users never took them out the vehicle. Tablets gave workers the true mobility they needed.At the same time, there were (now studied) advantages to a device that had pen-input capabilities that mirrored the paper-based/handwritten documentation practices most familiar to the mobile workforce.

Plus, it was a struggle in 1996 to find PCs – in any form factor – that provided the specialized computing capabilities many of these industrial customers needed since most pen computing OEMs at the time were attempting to design for broad, mass market application. Technologies enabling outdoor readability, reliable wireless communications, and more advanced I/O connectivity were still somewhat in their infancy, but ready for widespread applicability. So, as noted in Xplore’s 1998 Annual Report. “A captive, rapidly expanding market was available for the right computing solution – one that could address its unmet needs.” That’s why we spent 18 months collaboratively researching, developing, and testing tablet-based pen computing solutions with the help of highly invested customers.

Of course, Xplore wasn’t the only OEM who understood the positive impact that a tablet PC platform could have on business process improvement for certain workflows in more industrious sectors. Others were trying to refine pen computing systems that could challenge the notebook segment but couldn’t quite breakthrough on a grand scale. And sure, as Conrad accurately noted, our big vision to move the rugged computing market beyond traditional utilitarian design was risky. Our willingness to go all-in on the engineering and manufacturing of rugged tablets, and only rugged tablets, had many folks rooting for us as innovators but doubting our long-term resonance. We didn’t have the luxury of consumer lead way for tablets. The word “iPad” wasn’t even spoken until 14 years after Xplore was founded. So there were some challenges in communicating the benefits of a tablet to risk-averse businesses and, yes, Xplore’s rugged tablet system may have been a niche market play at the onset. We were, after all, trying to respond to the very specific requests of highly mobile vertical sectors that had the added challenge of harsh operating environments. Not many computer-related electronics were resilient to dust, water, or other hazards at the time. But that only made customers’ urgent appeals for a rugged-built, fully functioning, and completely mobile PC platform that much more opportunistic.

In fact, the reason Xplore was able to deliver a ‘first-in-class, "no-compromise" pen computing system’ from the start was because we – unlike our competitors – were always committed to the development of customer-defined solutions. Our success was heavily reliant on customer involvement and acceptance. That’s why we invited targeted end-users to be so thoroughly involved in the R&D and testing processes, and it’s why we took 18 months and multiple platform iterations to perfect our signature form factor and scalable feature set combinations. We knew that if omitted even one feature, such as a port, that a customer indicated was important – maybe to make our job easier or go to market faster – we would not only be making our customers’ job harder when they used our tablet, but we’d probably lose relevance in the market faster. So our agility and openness to customization became our growth platform. Instead of forcing customers to conform to the form factor and feature sets we thought was best, we took the time to engineer a rugged tablet system that they told us would be best. After receiving a highly positive and immediate response from our customer base – and a million dollar order upon our first tablet’s market launch – we knew our “big idea” wasn’t so far-fetched. We were confident that we were on the forefront of a new trend in business computing, but couldn’t anticipate the permanent staying power that rugged tablets would have for 20 years amidst a professional user base that, for so long, was mostly skeptical of tablets’ plausibility as a primary PC solution.

So, to answer the second question we receive when speaking with stakeholders: Why does Xplore continue to stay hyper-focused on rugged tablets exclusively today when the mobile computing market has clearly diversified? Because rugged tablets still remain – after 20 years – the only PC form factor capable of completely overcoming those very same mobile computing and harsh environmental challenges our customers faced when we started. At the same time, tablets’ workflow applicability is growing every day as businesses come to terms with how best to manage their new reliance on complex data-centric business processes and the necessitated convergence of fragmented hardware and software components into a consolidated data delivery system. In 20 years, rugged tablets have proven to be the only form factor that doesn't force anyone - the technology engineers, software developers, IT decision makers, or end-users - to compromise in any way. That’s why nearly every professional stands to benefit from rugged tablets today, and why a niche market request has led to a solution with mass market relevance and demand. Think about it:

  • The tablet is the only computer that can deliver the right power + connectivity + durability + storage + data tools + MOBILITY capabilities to close that gap between smartphones and desktops.
  • Notebooks, though in the midst of a thin client transition, are still nearly double the size of rugged tablets in many cases. They are clamshells and by definition are large, unwieldy "books" not capable of expeditious action by the walking worker. ( Can you imagine line busting at a fast food restaurant with a notebook?) Though Xplore is grateful for this thin client trend as it only reinforces what we’ve always said is one of the tablet’s greatest benefits: its “right-size” mobility.
  • Xplore rugged tablets, in particular, have naturally higher field uptime rates because they are internally and externally built to last. They are solid state devices that don’t have the moving parts that many notebooks do (which are prone to breakage). Plus, Xplore rugged tablets are the only damage-resistant mobile computing devices that can safely be used in Hazardous Locations (ATEX/C1D2/C1Z2) and literally be used anywhere - on a moving train or plane; on a flight line or on a ship at sea; in the desert or in a mine, at the top of a power pole or on an oil rig, on a motorcycle or in a fire truck; in the warehouse or on a manufacturing line; on a ladder or a forklift; in the field, vehicle, or office.
  • Unlike notebooks– which are meant primarily for data input with their always-attached keyboards – tablets are designed to equally support data consumption and data creation. Their bright View Anywhere displays especially bode well for aircraft manufacturers or military flight line maintainers reading an SOP or detailed drawing. And today’s tablets boast the power of pen and now touch inputs.

But perhaps the most important reason why rugged tablets are still a mainstay 20 years later – and more appealing to our customers than any other PC form factor, past or present – is their ability to adapt to the evolving expectations of the next generation workforce. Plus, the tablet has always been the ultimate all-in-one's your reader, your camera, your GPS, your desktop (and notebook).

Read the 1998 Pen Computing Article on Xplore