Last month I took a tour of Dell’s hardened laptops operation in Austin and its global command centers for both commercial and government business. It is interesting to note that just to see the government center required special approvals and the outside kind of looks like you are entering a demilitarized zone inside one of the Dell offices.
I’m fascinated by this class of laptop because I believe this represents more of the vector the industry should have gone down rather than the excessively thin and pretty—but fragile—vector that it instead chose. So let’s talk about hardened laptops this week.
What makes a hardened laptop different is that it is designed to take abuse. Depending on the model they can take water from being splashed to being submerged; they can handle heat ranges from nearly too cold to survive to nearly too hot to survive; they can handle dust and contaminants; they have battery life that often approaches 20 hours and you can actually see the displays outside in the bright sun. They also tend to lead the class with regard to security, and often use cutting edge biometrics rather than passwords or pins to control access—and have encryption turned on by default.
Now hardened laptops used to be brick heavy, but over the years they’ve gone on a diet and many aren’t that much heavier than the class we once called “thin and light”—though they are well off from the ultrabooks we now push at high end. But wouldn’t it be great to have a laptop that you didn’t really have to worry about getting wet or dropping, that could be used outside if you wanted, and that truly protected your confidential information?
Instead we have pretty but relatively fragile laptops that can’t be easily used outside, have relatively poor battery life, and aren’t particularly secure. I just wonder if we took a wrong turn around 15 years ago.
Dell Back End Support
When I first started covering Dell I observed a very strange phenomenon. Even though, at the time, Dell wasn’t as reliable as brands like Sony, its support was far better and so was its customer satisfaction and loyalty. It turned out that people cared more about getting fixed fast and easy than they did about whether the product broke. By focusing on service and support Dell rose up and pretty much kicked far older companies like IBM out of the market. Dell has since addressed its reliability issues and advanced its service and support capabilities to world class.
It is fascinating to watch as Dell has regional command centers and those centers get real time news and weather feeds. Dell support is also are connected to major accounts so it knows when there is a weather disaster which accounts remain in operation and which have closed down so it can prioritize response. Even in the case of a major disaster, with strategically placed parts it can generally respond in a few hours with a team to fix the problem and get critical accounts up and running. This capability is across Dell as well, so it includes their back end as well as desktop products.
Dell shared examples of being able to get parts into New York even when the streets had been shut down during the last major weather event and get accounts back up and running rapidly. This is an impressive resource unique to just a small number of world class vendors and Dell’s effort is global in scope. The picture at the top is of the big command center (non-government) in Austin. They wouldn’t let us take pictures of the government command center but it also was impressive.
As a class, hardened computers are for folks whose lives often depend on them working. These are military, EMTs, field techs, oil field workers, and others who live in the elements and need access to a laptop. They have actually gotten far more attractive over the years but they’ll never be as pretty as a typical high end laptop. But a typical high end laptop would fail where these machines thrive.
What makes Dell stand out isn’t so much the hardware but its ability to blend its offerings into an overall Dell bid and wrap them with world class Dell support. If a life depends on the product, that support could make the difference between living and dying. Still I often wonder if we should have focused more on attributes like you see in a hardened laptop than on flashy metals and prettier plastics. Something to think about next time you are in the market for a laptop.