I hate rugged computers

“What a rip off!  All you do is add is a few cents worth of rubber guards to your corners and call it rugged. The CPU of your rugged laptop is at least 2 years out of date. My regular old civilian laptop does a thousand things your laptop doesn’t. And rugged laptops are heavy, oversized monstrosities! How can you justify your ridiculous price?”

Not an actual email from a not real customer.

Fortunately, the above fictitious email is not representative of our clients and partners. Most of the people with whom we deal understand the true worth of ruggedized computers. Every once in awhile we run into someone who is new to ruggedness and we have to sit down and explain the facts of life to them.

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  • “…all you do is add is a few cents worth of rubber guards to your corners.”

Actually, we do a lot more than that. AMREL’s computers are built rugged from the ground up. Most of the work that goes into them is not readily visible.

For example, AMREL laptops have a Fault Tolerant Isolation Design – an encapsulation process that protects individual components from water, dust, and other foreign matter. Analogous to a submarine, each chamber in the body of our laptops and on-board/fixed vehicle units is individually sealed. Protective chambers separate the following compartments: motherboard, I/O ports, removable hard drive, and swappable Application Modules.

Bear in mind that our rugged computers are not just built for getting knocked around. They have to meet exacting standards for operating in high/low pressure, rain, dust, humidity, salt fog, and extreme temperatures. This is one reason that “protective sleeves,” which promise to ruggedize your commercial computer are less than ideal.

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  • “The CPU of your rugged laptop is at least 2 years out of date. My regular old civilian laptop does a thousand things your laptop doesn’t.”

This is a criticism often leveled at technology fielded by the military, and that is not a coincidence. Many of the same factors that affect the military also affect us.

For example, the rugged computer market is much smaller than the commercial one, just as the military market is lesser than the consumer one. Not only does the lack of economy of scale mean we have to pay higher prices for specialized parts, but the lack of choice for vendors leads to uncontrollable delays. Delays lead to a longer development process, which hinders our ability to utilize the most recent technological advances.

Furthermore, ruggedized computers are used in critical applications for soldiers and police. We build computers as if someone’s life depended on it, because they often do. This leads to a quality control system that is far more strict and redundant than what commercial products are subjected to.  To maintain such high standards, delays are inevitable.

So, our product development cycle, like all rugged computer manufacturers, is much longer. Greater and lengthier analyses and tests are required. Under these conditions, it’s almost impossible for any rugged computer to match the latest consumer products with their much shorter development cycles.

Still, AMREL is very conscious of the gap between the latest commercial products and typical ruggedized computers. The good news is that while it still is a problem, we have made real progress in bringing up-to-date technology to the rugged world.

One approach that we have taken is to design our rugged computers to be extremely flexible. Unlike commercial mobile platforms, ours are built to be quickly customized. Adding new technology is easy and convenient.

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  • “… how can you justify your ridiculous price?

As mention above rugged computers do not enjoy the same economy of scale as commercial ones.

However, this is a bit misleading, because rugged computers are a very good value for their price. This has been confirmed by every study that’s ever investigated this issue. The most well-known is by VDC Research who concluded that “Ruggedized Devices – both large and small form factor – achieve a distinct TCO advantage.”

TCO is Total Cost of Ownership. Not only does it include the initial price, but also platform support, integration, connectivity, lost work time, lost data, repair, and replacement cost. The later factors can be much greater than the initial price.

Another way of phrasing this is that rugged computers break down less often, need less repair, and last much longer than commercial grade ones.  I don’t know about you, but whenever my commercial laptop gets over 4 years old, my repair man stars muttering ominous threats about his inability to get “ancient” parts, and how my motherboard won’t support the latest application or operating system. In contrast I know of one police department that has been using our laptops 7 days a week for 12 years. This sort of longevity is especially important to the military.

So complaining that rugged computers are more expensive than commercial ones is the same as comparing a 90-minute phone card with a 45-minute one, i.e. one is more expensive, but it lasts much longer.

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  • “And rugged laptops are heavy, oversized monstrosities!”

You haven’t been paying attention. AMREL has launched SlimLine, a new generation of extremely thin fully rugged laptops, tablets, and handhelds. They so radically change the conventional idea of durability, that one of our biggest problems is convincing our clients and partners that a laptop only an inch thick is actually fully rugged! We even have a rugged handheld that will run full Windows OS, but is so small that it will slide into a cargo pocket.

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Still rugged mobile computers are not for everyone.  You should NOT buy a rugged computer if:

  • The data on your computer is not important, i.e. you don’t mind loosing it due to failure.
  • Frequent downtimes and repairs are not a problem for you.
  • You don’t care that you have to replace your handheld, laptop or tablet every few years.
  • You operate your computer in an exceptionally stable, non-threatening environment.

If the above statements do not describe you, give one our experts a call at (800) 882-6735, or email us at cdinfo@amrel.com and learn more about the advantages of rugged computers.

How To Make A Cheese Ball Machine Gun [VIDEO]

File this under things that make America great. Evidently, some big box stores sell impressively sized barrels of a food-like substance called “cheese balls.” No one can figure out what to do with them (eating them is apparently out of the question). A YouTube enthusiast,  NightHawkInLight, has an extensive video channel featuring do-it-yourself projects, such as making […]

Windows 10 Tips & Tricks [VIDEO]

I looked at a number of videos that offer the best “tips and tricks” on the Microsoft’s latest operating system. I found that vast majority fell into 3 categories:

  • Ones that featured narrators who spoke with nearly indecipherable accents.
  • Ones that featured narrators that spoke so fast that I couldn’t figure out what they were saying.
  • My personal favorites: ones featured narrators who spoke too fast with nearly indecipherable accents.

After nearly loosing complete faith in the internet, I checked out my old standby CNET.  CNET has a number of videos with clear explanations for Windows 10 as well as narrators with spoke in an understandable manner.

The videos proclaim what you probably already have heard: Windows 10 fixes many of the problems found in earlier operating systems.  After hearing someone yell for the umpteenth time “The start menu is back!” with a level of enthusiasm usually reserved for transcendent sports moments, I grew a little suspicious.

Is it possible that Microsoft has deliberately screwed up some features, so that when they fix them later, people feel even more bonded to this OS? This is a classic technique used by domestic abusers and other grand manipulators.  President Lyndon Johnson used to berate subordinates unmercifully and then give them a car.  Of course, for this to be true, we would have to believe Microsoft to be pure evil.  I leave this to your own judgment.

Below are three videos that I found helpful.  You can also find more CNET videos in their How to webpage.

Hack Your Car Legally [VIDEO]

The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) is having an impressive string of victories in its fight to reform the government’s interpretation of the “anti-circumvention” Section 1201of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Arguing fair use, the EFF has had success in removing restrictions for access to DVD & Blue Ray “ripping,” cellphone “jailbraking,” as well as videogames and abandoned multiplayer servers.

One of the most interesting EFF’s victories is the right for an owner to hack their own car’s computers.  For a brief summary about this decision, see video below:

Originally, integrated automotive computers rose to prominence in response to demands for tighter emissions standards and fuel economy.  Now, computers manage air conditioning, radios, air bags, alarm systems, anti-lock braking systems, traction control, ride control, cruise control, and automatic transmissions. A typical 1970 car had only $25 worth of electronics. Currently, a new car’s computers may be worth $6,000 or more.

The ever-growing computerization of automobiles had its dark side. For a person with a lot of sweat, but few resources, car repair was a traditional way to gain a respectable livelihood. The kid who fixed his neighbor’s cars in his family’s garage could dream of eventually owning his own repair shop.

Computerization, with its proprietary systems and software, was an obvious attempt by the automobile manufacturers to dominate the repair market.When automotive computers were introduced, they were exotic, expensive, and required extensive specialized training. In the mind of car manufacturers, the friendly neighborhood car repairman would fade into obsolescence, replaced by dealer service employees in white jackets.

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And the guys who worked weekends detailing and souping up their own cars? Well, they could tell stories to their grandkids about how once upon a time, people could actually work on their own cars.

But then a funny thing happened. Computers became a lot less exotic, and much easier to use. Even uneducated people started walking around with them in their pockets. Tinkering with software became as familiar as cleaning a carburetor.

More highly trained than before, and needing more expensive diagnostic tools, the small-time mechanic has endured. Despite the designs of large automobile companies, he is not a quaint anachronism. Furthermore, guys still work on their own cars, viewing the computers as simply more parts to modify, upgrade and play with.

Proprietary laws still protect the rights of manufacturers, but the recent wins by the EFF have breathed new life into the great American car obsession.  The EFF state the recent decisions “…. represent a victory for the public that will help independent security researchers evaluate automotive software, will promote competition in the vehicle aftermarket, and will support vehicle owners who wish to learn about or improve on their own cars.”

(Note:  EFF’s efforts target integrated automotive computers. I am not sure, but I do not think the recent decisions apply to Mobile Display Terminals (MDT). Often used by Law Officers and other First Responders, AMREL has supplied laptops and tablets for this application for decades. We will keep a close eye on how future decisions impact MDTs)

EFF’s request to the Librarian of Congress (who interprets the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and its subsequent enforcement), specifically requested the freedom to “tinker.” The “freedom to tinker” is an issue that goes beyond cars and has caused technological giants, such as Google, to worry about America losing its scientific edge (see War on Inventors).

In the 1930s, when people jumped into their car’s guts, and rearranged things, the hot rod was born. I wonder what will get created now.

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War on Inventors

On September 14, Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for having a fake bomb. He never claimed he had a bomb, fake or otherwise. Under stressful interrogation by police, he repeatedly claimed, as he had all along, that the clock was, in fact, a clock. Though the police agreed that the homemade device was indeed a clock, they arrested Ahmed anyway.

Ahmed was handcuffed and suspended from school. His story has a happy ending in that charges were dropped, and many powerful people reached out to him.  By invitation, he’ll be touring FaceBook, Google, and the White House.

While many people have focused on the bigotry angle of Ahmed’s story (would he have been arrested if had not been a Moslem?), there is another aspect that is also troubling. To put it bluntly, many of the people involved in his arrest acted stupidly.  It should have been quite evident very early on that no crime had been committed, and that this 14-year old was no threat at all. Yet, both the school and law enforcement have stubbornly insisted that their actions were appropriate.

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Nobody expects police, the judiciary, and teachers to be experts about explosives and dangerous devices. However, it seems obvious that when confronted by a technology of which you are suspicious, one should consult a professional to make an informed assessment. It is also obvious that when one makes a blatant mistake, one should admit it and move on.

Shockingly, Ahmed’s story is not unique. A quick internet searched revealed a surprisingly high number of incidents in which innocent people’s lives were disrupted under similar circumstances.

  • Sixteen-year old Kiera Wilmot did what kids have done since time immemorial: created a volcano experiment at a science fair. After an uneventful, successful demonstration, she was promptly arrested, suspended from school, and charged with 2 felonies, which were later dropped. She is now a sophomore at Florida Polytechnic University.
  • Steve Kurtz, a professor of art, sometimes uses biological materials in his installations. FBI raided his home and charged him with bioterrorism. Despite Commissioner of Public Health for New York State ruling that nothing in his home posed a threat, federal authorities still brought charges. After a grand jury refused to indict him on bioterrorism, he was charged with other felonies. A genetics professor who assisted him with his art projects was also indicted. Four years after the initial charges, a judge ruled that no crime had been committed.
  • Lewis Casey, an 18-year-old university student, built a chemistry lab in his home for his studies. Police arrested him for running a meth lab.  After it became abundantly clear to even the most clueless observer, that Casey’s lab had nothing to do with meth, he was charged with terrorism and bomb making. More than a year after his arrest he worked out a plea deal, paid a fine, will not have a criminal record, and will be able to return to his studies at university.
  • Xi Xiaoxing, the chairman of Temple University’s physics department was arrested for passing secrets to the Chinese. The evidence was a diagram he had sent overseas. The federal authorities claimed it was for a sensitive piece of technology called a pocket heater. Months after he was led away in handcuffs, suspended from his job, stripped of his title of chairman, and had his long-term research disrupted, expert testimony convinced the feds that the suspicious diagram was nothing like the pocket heater. Charges were dropped.

I have other examples. A hydrologist for the National Weather Service was cleared of all spying charges, but still risks losing her job. Even rapper/actor Ice-T was arrested for having a fake bomb, a clock that he had bought at the mall.

Although the spying episodes may seem different than the fake bomb incidents, they share a similar pattern:

  • Authorities see a technology that arouses fear.
  • Without really understanding what they see, they arrest the suspect.
  • They fail to consult experts about what the technology really is.
  • Even when the suspect is cleared of the original charges, authorities will refuse to admit they made a mistake and even sometimes bring further unrelated charges.

If you are alarmed by this, you are not alone. More and more people are becoming concerned about the “Freedom to Tinker.”  Hackers, makers, and other technophiles are frightened that their creativity will be stifled by an authoritarian, permission-based culture. This is not a simple matter in that it impacts copyright law, counterterrorism, patents, and a host of other issues.

The outreach by technological giants to the Texas teenager was motivated by more than simple outrage against an injustice. Some important innovators in the hi-tech world are frightened that the playfulness – the joy – of experimentation by young folks is under attack. This could be significant detriment to technological development. As someone once remarked to me, “The construction of every bridge began with a child playing with blocks.”

I was raised on stories about the great inventors like the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell. I grew up thinking that inventiveness was a core American virtue. I fear that when our current generation listens to the inspiring story of bicycle repairmen from Ohio inventing the first heavier-than-air flying machine, they will inevitably ask, “When were the Wright brothers arrested for building Weapons of Mass Destruction?”

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