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The Clipper Race and the Return of Rugged Computers

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I was in New York this week to check out the Clipper Race for Your Life event. This race is amazing in that it costs the crew around $70K to work the ships. Taking part means 12-hour days, 7-day weeks, no heat, no air conditioning, bunks that must be reset when the boat tacks from side to side, and canned food for months. Granted, you can just go one leg for around $13K, but that’s still a lot of money and effort.

However, it is also the adventure of a lifetime, and you learn a lot about sailing.

I found it particularly interesting that participants use Dell Rugged computers. This segment of the PC market hasn’t changed much over the years. But now that Dell is ramping up its effort, I think it could evolve enough to fix one of this unique market’s biggest problems: low churn.

The Problem with Rugged Laptops

In any market dominated by one vendor, a lack of competition can cause product development to stall and flounder. Competition spurs vendors to innovate, and the lack of it can result in what we have with rugged computers today: designs that haven’t changed much in years, legacy ports that have become nightmares and very low product churn.

This has resulted in massive cutbacks at Panasonic, the dominant vendor with its Toughbook line, and it created an opportunity for Dell, which sees this segment as a huge opportunity now.

Rugged devices comprise a critical class of laptop in that they are used by first responders, the military and field personnel in market segments that include petrochemical, aerospace, utilities and field repair. In effect, this is the class of laptop that keeps us safe and keeps our infrastructure running.

Initially Dell treated rugged as somewhat of a hobby. However, it recently staffed up and is also ramping up its rugged lab and facilities. This should result in innovation as well, and that could lead to some significant and needed changes.

Rugged Changes

I expect these changes will come in several forms. First, one of the big problems with this class is legacy ports. They create openings in the case where water and dust can get in, but because these computers must connect to some old stuff, the market had demanded they remain despite the fact that they weaken the laptop lines. But these machines have waterproof docking ports on the bottom, so they can be mounted to special docks in vehicles. You could use these same connectors with an accessory that had the ports and eliminate the ports on the laptop. This would make the PCs far more robust. (I also think they should be using a dock/mount on the Clipper ships to better secure these things.)

Given the massive move toward augmented reality (AR) in a lot of the fields that these products target, manufacturers could also create a wearable version without a screen. Using a blend of wrist-mounted keyboards, sensors and voice control, they could come up with something that anticipates the future and vastly improves the PC's utility. This would also reduce the time it takes to deploy and pack these things up.

Dell has been very aggressive with new materials like carbon fiber. Using that in these already expensive systems could reduce their weight and improve their strength. Done right, the devices could also become more attractive, which might allow Dell to grow the relatively static market. The company could also create some unique design language, so you’d know immediately it was a Dell. I should point out that years ago I convinced another firm to build a Hummer version of its hardened laptop, and it sold surprisingly well, suggesting there are a lot of untapped users for this class.

I had a ball with the Clipper group. They let me helm the ship for a significant period. But I was reminded how important the rugged class of laptop is and how it desperately needs to evolve.

I think Dell will evolve this class, and I can see a future where I might lust for one of these things. We’ll see.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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