Dell’s Rugged Computers Take To The Seas     

I moved to the Ocean in Southern California around 1969 and started sailing when I was 12 and continued into my 20s. So, it was with excitement that I attended the media event surrounding the Clipper Around the World Yacht race. We had a briefing in the morning one day and then the following day we went on a 4-hour sail (the entire time the Gilligan’s Island theme song was playing in my head). Personally 4 hours was more than enough for me and spending days on a boat this size with no privacy, semi-weekly bucket showers, and no heat or air conditioning just didn’t float my boat even before the $70K cost but I do admire the folks that can survive this. I should point out it makes for an excellent diet as participants tend to lose around 30 pounds on the voyage.

Clipper Race

This is a rather exclusive race in that crew members pay around $80K to participate in the entire race (the Captain and First Mate of every boat is paid, everyone else pays) and this is no Ocean Cruise. You not only pay the money you work 12-hour days and 7-day weeks for the time you are on the Ocean and the sailing ships aren’t huge. But the cost and time commitment make the experience pretty exclusive with (fewer people have sailed the world than have climbed Mount Everest according to founder Sir Robin Knox-Johnston). This race has been going on for 50 years and started when there were real Clipper Ships in it (Clippers were fast trading ships generally carrying cargos like tea). I should point out that most folks only go for one leg which is typically closer to $10K and you do get some incredible open ocean navigation and sailing training. (A lot of folks that buy boats and want to go distance should take at least on leg of this and learn what they are up against before taking their dream boat trip).

Most all of the technology on these ships are mechanical with the exceptions being the generators, auxiliary engines, radios (including Satellite phones), and two Dell Rugged laptops. They tried regular laptops but found that salt water, humidity, and regular laptops don’t mix.

So, they decided to go to Rugged Computers instead and picked Dell.

Rugged Computers

This is a class of computer that most of us don’t see. Designed largely for Military, Law Enforcement, and field Petrochemical use (to diagnose and maintain oil fields and related pipelines) but used generally by field personnel in other markets these things are built like tanks.

The dominant vendor in the space in Panasonic with their Toughbook. But Panasonic has been cutting resources of late, never was able to implement a global support capability, and was never able to be successful globally in any other PC segment all of which left them vulnerable for displacement.

Dell is the only vendor of global scale ever to take them on but even they seemed to initially treat this market as more of a hobby than a real business. Recently that changed, and they moved the effort formally into their far more capable Work Station group and as Panasonic staffed down, they staffed up.

They had already implemented global support capabilities, put in place unique hardened dedicated support organizations for government and military, and are currently building a world class lab to both test and advance their platform. Sadly, Panasonic is overmatched and, I expect, will have to exit this market much like they have largely exited much of the world consumer electronics market and most of the PC market over the years. This is somewhat sad because Panasonic is one of oldest firms in technology and, at lone time, was a force to be reckoned with but they gave up on offense seemingly concluding they couldn’t compete with the US, Taiwan, China, or Korea and have been in decline ever since.

This allowed Dell to step in and gain a beachhead and the firm is now moving to dominance and recognize that over the last couple of years Dell has done the impossible. First going private and then acquiring EMC taking them private as well and successfully executing Michael Dell’s Go Big or Go Home strategy. Any firm that doesn’t have the will to fight Dell will likely roll over and Panasonic doesn’t seem to have the will to fight.

Wrapping Up: Clipper + Dell

The Dell Rugged computers have held up near flawlessly for the Clipper teams who use them exclusively. One of the interesting stories was that one of the ships took a lighting strike which disabled all of the electronics, blew out the generator, and took the boat to the dark ages. But the Dell Rugged computers kept on trucking and since the ship’s batteries were still functioning, they could be recharged. They had built in GPS, so they could be used for navigation allowing the afflicted ship to continue on to port to get the rest of their electronics and generator fixed. The only failure they’ve had was the result of someone taking the laptop on deck forgetting to close the waterproof ports on it and salt water does horrible things to electronics. Of course, this had me thinking that maybe using a dock with ports rather than the ports on the laptop would be a better implementation because the dock connector is waterproof. This also made me wonder if a configuration without ports all together would be a better option for some of the Rugged Clients.

Finally, every time I work with a Rugged client I’m reminded that maybe we took a wrong turn with Laptops in general. We focused on ultrathin and ultralight when maybe we should have put Rugged as a higher priority. Whether you are talking Dell Rugged or Panasonic Toughbook this is a class of product you could literally, and people do, put your life on the line for. They’ll continue to function when the vast majority of our electronics won’t. And that handle, common for this class, is incredibly handy particularly if you are running for a meeting or going through TSA security (though there are some funny stories about TSA seeing one of these things and freaking out a bit as they have a distinct military vibe to them).

We live in a hostile world with increasing threats, Rugged PCs are designed to weather these storms, I often wonder if more of us should carry them.