The evolution of the PC into a truly mobile device is enabling companies to gain huge advantages from taking the technology to the point of activity, says Mark Muslek, MD, JLT UK. Historically, mobile computers in terms of technology played the part of dummy terminals and performed the duty of data capture devices, relaying barcoded or key-entered information back to base at the end of the working day or shift. As communications systems developed, this information became available in real-time.

A glance around the market today shows mobile computers are evolving rapidly, allowing a much broader range of applications to be performed remotely. This is a major step-change in the industry as devices are no longer looking for applications because these are now rushing up to meet them as companies begin to realise the potential of mobilising their workforce. By utilising these devices users are pushing the boundaries of their IT systems well outside of the office.

Today’s mobile devices also exploit the user-friendliness of Microsoft Windows?in one form or other?providing a familiar computing environment with a similar user interface as one can expect to see on a standard desktop or laptop PC. These mobile computers range from PDA type devices that have proven popular as electronic organisers to powerful ruggedised tablet PCs that are suited to the most demanding of environments. It is this latter variety that is the focus of this article.

Such rugged tablet PCs are enabling users to perform jobs out in the field, with seamless data transfer between them and their back office systems. Additionally, with the advent of technology such as Microsoft’s .NET, user expectation for mobile applications is increasing. There is also an awareness that going mobile by utilising .NET not only allows Windows-based software to connect with other applications over the web it also has the benefits of lower application development costs so that users can do more but with the same technology.

In essence it is possible to run the software used in the office directly in the field. Yes, there will be a need for specifically developed mobile application software, but on the whole we are now living in a world where seamless integration and operation is immediately achievable, with office desktop software being used on mobile devices without a hitch.

Defining the rugged mobile computer

Moreover, the sky truly is the limit when it comes to developing an application?the boundaries are only set by the imagination of the system developers. For example, it would be possible to develop a system that not only communicated information to and from the mobile user in real-time, it could also run heavy-weight database applications, coupled to data collection and even GPS. When it comes to networking in real-time, even mobile communications have been solved with the establishment of robust GPRS connectivity that enables real-time synchronising between mobile and office systems.

Competition in this market space is stiff, with manufacturers offering feature- and function-rich devices. However, like with any technology time spent examining competing products in detail will provide dividends when choosing a device. For in-field applications, rugged tablet PCs must not only offer a wealth of features, they must provide a solid design that ensures that the system will work for many years to come.

The aim is to attain maximum up time and availability of the system, with minimal downtime due to faults and the need for repairs. Standard-setting features will include an extremely strong aircraft grade aluminium chassis, 8.4-inch colour touchscreen viewable in sunlight, and integrated wireless communications?Bluetooth, WLAN, 3G/GPRS, with highly accurate GPS.

There should also be a choice of processors?some applications will not need the power of a desktop computer, but as they say ‘what can do a lot, can do a little?and a test rating to MIL STD 810F. Battery life for mobile computing has always been issue in the past, but with battery management, hot swappable batteries that allow quick changes, and energy efficient processors, this is now much improved across the board.

Devices of this calibre will be specifically designed without moving and external parts and will have been subjected to the severest tests?water and dust ingress to IP65, drop tests to 1.2 metres and extreme temperatures ranging from -20C to +50C. This lack of moving parts will also extend to the option of being able to stipulate Flash memory instead of a hard drive as data can be transferred directly back to the office in real-time rather than stored locally on the device.

Manufacturers will also provide a host of options to add functionality to the mobile PC such as in-cab docking station, which also provide additional connectivity options. For automatic identification/data capture, users should be able to use any Bluetooth barcode, chip card or RFID reader that companies such as Baracoda offer. Examples of rugged tablet PC applications are refreshingly broad and interesting. They show great diversity and ingenuity.