Believe It or Not, Most Field-Based Workers Don’t Need or Want Laptops.

But they do need a computer they can bring with them everywhere they go – and the ease of a full-sized keyboard on occasion. That’s why rugged 2-in-1 tablets are in high demand right now.

A paramedic carries a rugged tablet on her shoulder while moving a patient on a gurney
by Patrick Seidensticker
October 19, 2021

If you’ve heard a lot of different opinions about what makes a tablet or laptop a 2-in-1 computing device, know you’re not alone. In my 20+ years in the mobile computing industry, I’ve heard every point of view there is. Some say it’s a laptop with a foldaway keyboard. Others argue it’s a tablet with a detachable keyboard. A few people have even claimed 2-in-1s shouldn’t be considered laptops or tablets – that they’re in a category of their own. (Convertibles, perhaps?)

It’s hard to say who’s right or wrong. But I will say this: 2-in-1s aren’t what they were even five years ago – at least not in the enterprise mobile computing space.

Detaching from the Past

There are millions of people around the world who don’t work in a traditional office setting and probably never will. Yet, they all need a full office setup to do their jobs. I’m not talking about those who shifted into a remote work status due to the pandemic, either. I’m talking about engineers, first responders and emergency personnel, investigators, insurance adjustors, utility technicians, residential and commercial service providers, military personnel, and others out in the field every day helping to build, protect, maintain, serve and restore our communities.

They need the same access to operational information as any other worker in their respective organizations – perhaps even more urgently. Therefore, they need a way to stay digitally connected to critical infrastructure systems and each other no matter how physically distanced they are from the office or their colleagues. Situational awareness is a mainstay of their jobs. That’s why public safety and utility crews were among the first to test and use rugged tablets over 20 years ago. They needed a computing solution that mimicked the desktop experience but was truly mobile.

Though rugged laptops became wildly popular among mobile workers who spent a lot of time driving from one site to the next, most were too bulky and heavy to ever remove from the vehicle dock. To be honest, it’s still that way today despite the advancements made to slim down devices. So, field-based workers are heading out to job sites empty handed – and laptops are sitting unused in vehicles for hours on end. And at the end of the day, they spend hours trying to write and submit reports and close out work orders – hoping they remembered everything correctly and realizing there was probably information they forgot to capture when clearing a scene, interviewing a witness, installing a piece of equipment, or inspecting a building.

I know. It’s hard to believe, right? We live in the digital age. People should be able to be access, capture and/or share information on the spot, no matter what.

That’s why I’m calling on you to abandon the notion that all mobile workers need laptops. They don’t. In fact, many are going to be disadvantaged by laptops. And I know you care about productivity, especially right now.

The workload seems to be doubling by the day, doesn’t it? More calls, patients, and service requests are coming in. More infrastructure, homes and buildings need to be constructed, inspected, and repaired. And more planes, trains and automobiles need to be manufactured, maintained and operated. Don’t get me started on the ebb and flow of energy demands or the depths crews must go to extract natural resources. I haven’t met one person who isn’t feeling the pressure right now to do more each day…without making mistakes along the way.

Can you imagine how much harder their jobs must be if they are having to make do with a device that’s not well suited for their jobs?

My suspicion is that once you walk a day in their shoes, you’ll see they really need two different form factors to maintain a smooth workflow between their homes, vehicles, the field, customer homes, and other job sites. They need one that can be used in hand while walking and working and one that can be setup like a laptop in the vehicle or on a desk. That doesn’t mean they need two devices, though.

They just need one, large screen rugged 2-in-1 tablet with a keyboard that can be folded in for a “close and go” laptop solution or completely detached when they need a true tablet to move about quickly. And they need a computer they can dock and undock – from the vehicle, desktop, forklift, or other mount – in one second, with one hand. Watch this:

Staying Connected to Today’s Mobile Workforce Trends

The value of a rugged 2-in-1 tablet goes beyond its physical flexibility. The size of the global utility industry’s field-based workforce has doubled in recent years, and mobile workers will soon make up 60% of the total U.S. workforce. If these employees are to do their jobs effectively, they must have the right device form factor for all their workspaces and the right device features for all workflows.  This is the notion of “workforce transformation.”  More digital-based work is happening in the field, which means more content creation and content consumption is happening.  The 2-in-1 form factor is the logical device to enable.

For example, we know a laptop-like device is important for many front-line workers. But laptops don’t always have multiple USB ports, much less HDMI-in, True Serial or RJ-45 input/output (I/O) – not even the convertible ones marketed for business use. Yet, in customer surveys Zebra recently conducted, critical field service workers, firefighters, emergency medical services (EMS) technicians and utility professionals all agreed a single USB port is not sufficient. There are multiple ancillary devices and accessories they must connect to during the day, including printers and testing/diagnostic equipment. They need their “office” – business applications, data, collaboration tools – centralized on one device, and that requires I/O. It also means that built-in barcode scanners, Common Access Card (CAC) reader and antenna pass-throughs are must-have features. But it’s rare to find a laptop with one of these, much less all three. That’s because most laptops aren’t made for intense field use…or manufacturing applications…or public safety.

Rugged 2-in-1 tablets, on the other hand, are made exclusively for these types of mobile workers. So, they offer all the above capabilities and more: push-to-talk communications and collaboration tools, super-bright (800 nit) screens, and universal docks (that offer up to 9 extra I/O ports). These features, though not necessarily important to consumers, are mission-critical to professionals. They are what enable front-line workers to stay productive everywhere they go and transition from one place or task to the next without having to transfer data from one device to another.

Imagine a police officer called to the scene of an accident. With a rugged 2-in-1 in hand, they can run driver’s licenses, validate insurance and registrations, take pictures of the vehicles, document statements, get signatures from those involved, and submit reports right on the spot – without having to return to the patrol vehicle once. If they get called to another incident while clearing this scene, they can use the tablet to respond to dispatch, report their location, get debriefed and even coordinate with other responding agencies while en route. And with advanced 4G/5G cellular technology, officers out in the field remain connected to other team members and the critical information they need, no matter where they are called to assist.

Utility linemen can also bring their 2-in-1 tablets with them to calls to help guide and expedite actions. They can access GIS maps, scan barcodes (if available) to retrieve asset history and model information, pull up instruction manuals, report work order status and even call remote specialists for help if needed. They can call in remote expert help, take pictures of the repair or install, and even hang the tablet securely in the bucket lift when they need to free up their hands. If they only want to bring the tablet into the field – perhaps to control a pipeline inspection drone or run a quick diagnostic check of a node – they can detach the keyboard and leave it in the vehicle. When ready to submit a report or return the tablet to the vehicle dock, they can just reattach the keyboard.

At the same time, manufacturing or delivery team members who need to frequently capture videos or photos for proof of condition, delivery or service will tell you they don’t want to lug around a laptop all day long – or have to work across two devices, such as a handheld and laptop. So, a rugged 2-in-1 tablet that can instantly convert between a mobile and laptop-like form factor is highly valuable. Plus, some of the latest rugged 2-in-1 tablets come with Wi-Fi 6E connectivity, which is beneficial when the tablets are being used to control or communicate with robots or run augmented reality apps.

So, if you’re giving your mobile workers laptops because the clamshell design has always been the common (or perhaps most cost-effective) choice for mobile workers, remember these aren’t workers who occasionally have to go offsite for customer meetings in a coffee shop or board room. And a laptop isn’t cost effective if it breaks often because it’s used by someone who climbs ladders, crawls in small spaces to inspect electrical wiring, or otherwise works in areas not so friendly to electronic devices.

Okay, I’ll admit, rugged laptops could technically be an option considering they tend to have similar feature sets to rugged 2-in-1 tablets. But have you held a rugged laptop lately? Or tried to lift it out of a vehicle mount? Even though many models have dropped a few pounds over the years, there’s a reason why many workers are still leaving them in vehicles all day long – and why more than half of 2-in-1 detachable tablets will probably be mounted in vehicles in the next few years.

Laptops aren’t well suited for field-based workers, except for when they’re sitting in a parked truck or car or only in the field for a fraction of their shifts.

The Takeaway

If it’s time to replace your mobile workers’ laptops – or you’re just tired of hearing them say “I’ll send that report in when I get back to the office” – then start looking at your rugged 2-in-1 tablet options. Don’t waste any more time or money buying or managing laptops that aren’t really keeping them productive and connected. They check all the boxes for those who need a large screen and handheld mobile computer feature sets, along with some specialized toolsets. And they offer a truly handheld and desktop form factor in one device.

Plus, some newer rugged 2-in-1 tablets have friction hinge keyboards that give workers a laptop-like experience. So, people may not even notice they don’t have a real laptop until they need a tablet. Then they’ll notice a huge difference. They’ll finally be able to get work done from their “office,” wherever that may be today.

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Patrick Seidensticker
Patrick Seidensticker has over 20 years in the IT industry including over 10 years in the rugged mobile device industry. His roles have ranged from product marketing and product development to sales and business development. He has launched and managed multiple generations of rugged mobile devices solutions and today leads Rugged Tablet Product Management for Zebra Technologies.
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