Rugged handhelds have existed for a long time as purpose-built devices for specific industries or agriculture. These devices were bulky, heavy, and built for a particular service or function. Telecommunication over public cellular networks were normally not supported. That meant that users of such devices would normally carry a separate mobile phone for regular communications.
About 10 years ago, with the rise of Voice over IP, some companies started adopting it as a mobile service, POC, ie Push-To-Talk Over Cellular, and looked for mobile devices to integrate and deploy it. This was before Android and other open platforms, so the service had to be developed and integrated as embedded proprietary solution on then-existing mobile phones.
Doing so was expensive and narrowed down the applicability of these devices for the regular consumer markets. These specialized mobile phones became purpose-built devices, mainly for the vertical markets.
From this starting point, it made sense to make these devices even more suitable for use in industry environments. In such environments ruggedness was an obvious and desirable product capability. Here, some big mobile phone vendors started adding one-off sturdier models to their product portfolios. But the real take off of the rugged mobile phone industry happened with the birth of some companies, which did nothing else and which products carved a new niche in the handheld industry.
This is what defined the rugged and ultra-rugged phones as purpose-built working tools, and triggered a technological quest to improve the product 'ruggedness' with respect to structural integrity, mechanical and environmental reliability, waterproofness, ingress resistance, etc. Initially, available military and ingress resistance standards were adopted as benchmarks for mechanical, structural and environmental qualification, but soon the leaders of that new industry segments developed and adopted their own standards for reliability and performance. The industry leaders even developed their own qualification specifications and the test equipment for them. Mechanical ruggedness was then completed with functional performance improvements for core usability areas – audio had to be loud, clear and loudspeakers had to be forward-facing for easier hands free use, radio antenna and location sensitivity had to be above average for work well indoors and under low signal conditions, and battery life had to be sufficient for several shifts of heavy-duty work, often extending to a week or more of more typical patterns of use.
The accumulated legacy in rugged research and development of handheld devices got a natural transition to smartphones a few years ago. The open operational systems of these devices, especially Android, made it easy to add enterprise services as applications. At the same time, the versatility of the smartphone as a consumer product made rugged smartphones attractive to many regular end users as well. Virtually all core rugged features of a modern rugged smartphone, in design and functionality, are applicable and attractive to professionals and enthusiasts alike. The top of the line rugged products can be found in use in as diverse places as transportation fleets, First Responders, extreme sport enthusiasts, active life style community, even the Department of Defense. These are the same core products, even if they can be configured for a particular use.
The fact that the end user price of top of the line rugged smartphones is often close to this of the regular consumer products is an achievement itself. Of course, one should not look for above average media or gaming capabilities in such products – this is not what they were designed for. And, of course, one should be careful with the copycats, which every new trend creates. In the rugged phone segment, more than anywhere else, what you pay is what you get.
The quest in 'ruggedness' continues today and some products have become ultra-rugged and ultra-reliable for use under very difficult conditions – whether on the job or as companion in an active life style.