Photo Dale Stockton
Panasonic's Tough Tablet
FEATURED IN TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATIONS
There are plenty of devices on the market today that can help make policing more efficient. Yet for all the different types and models of laptops, handhelds, tablets and smartphones, there seems to be just as much confusion about what works and what doesn’t for our profession. Even more confounding: One law enforcement agency may try to replicate the proven success of another agency and adopt the same mobile devices—ending up with little more than frustration and failure.
Essentially, the success of a technology platform can be narrowed down to three discernible factors: interoperability, dependability and usability.
Here, interoperability simply means: Does it work with the applications you need it to? Hardware and software issues may be as old as problems with sticky keys on telegraph sounders, but the interoperability problem is no less real today. While many agencies are eager and ready to adopt portable technology hardware, their software applications aren’t.
Some (older) software applications demand tremendous memory and system resources—resources that most mobile devices can’t accommodate. Some older, legacy applications may not work adequately—if at all—on a mobile device.
Basically, mobile devices require Web-enabled software applications. If your applications and software can’t be accessed or run from a Web browser, there’s not much you can do with a mobile device. Sure, some applications and legacy software can be customized to run on a mobile device, but the cost to do so is prohibitively expensive, in most cases. Instead of re-configuring outdated software, it’s oftentimes better to replace it with Web-based applications.
This is especially true given that mobile devices are essentially designed for Web applications. So if your software applications can’t be accessed and used via an Internet connection, replace your legacy software with Web-enabled applications or get your applications Web-enabled before adopting mobile devices. Once you’re software is Web-enabled, you can use practically any device with a Web browser. This way, you can adopt an inter-operational, multi-platform mobile strategy: one that allows traffic officers to use a hand-held mobile computer, investigators to use tablets and patrol officers to use smartphones—and share information and applications with ease.
Another key aspect of interoperability is device specificity: You must deploy the right device for the task. Sure, you could write an investigative report on a smartphone. But who would want to suffer the agony of a tiny screen and keyboard, especially when other mobile devices, such as a tablet, are better suited for the task? On the other hand, a smartphone in the hands of a field officer might be able to confirm a stolen vehicle or suspect by assessing law enforcement networks on the go. Bottom line: Ensure each mobile device suits a specific set of duties, tasks and goals and deploy them accordingly.
When you most need your tools to work, there can be no question of whether they will work. No matter what device you choose to implement, it needs to perform every time. Many major device manufacturers tout exceptional dependability. In my experience, once operational, most devices are about as reliable as they claim.
When it comes to reliable performance in most law enforcement situations, devices don’t fail dramatically—in most circumstances, devices aren’t going to fall off a three-story building or burn in a pool of flaming oil. Typically, it’s the more mundane things, such as poorly mounted docking stations or wear-and-tear on a power adapter that will render even a top-of-the-line device useless.
Consider how your mobile computing device will be used. Where will it be used? Where will it be stored? How will it be powered? How will information be protected on it? Can you replace components in a pinch? Think these questions through thoroughly to ensure the longest life and greatest productivity of your mobile solution. Remember: A multi-thousand-dollar mobile device is only as dependable as the $10 power adapter that keeps it going.
The lesson: Don’t skimp on the accessories, adapters and other supporting equipment. Think of a mobile computing device and accessories as equally important parts in your overall mobile computing system. Proper docking stations, connecting equipment and mounting devices are essential. Will officers carry PDAs on their duty belts? If so, investing in a protective case might be a good idea. For vehicle-mounted tablets and laptop computers, consider duty-specific mounting systems. (Note: Even though tablets are relatively new to the market, there are several worthy docking stations and protective cases built for the law enforcement market.) Remember to consider factors unique to your operational environment, such as when and how often officers will be removing docked tablets or laptops from their vehicles. Does the mounting system facilitate this? Bottom line: The more dependable a device and its accessories are, the more likely personnel can make better use of them. Dependability immensely influences device success, usage and efficiency.
Another critical aspect of dependability is network connectivity—that is, the way a mobile device actually connects to your network and applications (by WiFi, WLAN, etc.). No matter how well the mobile device and its accessories work, they’re useless if connecting to your network is problematic. As with application issues, be sure to iron out any network connectivity problems—before implementing new mobile devices.
There’s a lot to a network, but essentially, a mobile device needs a secure and dependable connection to a router/firewall on your network, which then connects to various servers, databases and other infrastructure within your network. Whether you connect mobile devices using a wireless device provider (such as Sprint, Verizon or AT&T), a WiFi network or just a network cable at a desk, each point of access must provide reliable connectivity or it’s worthless.
Your department has elements that make it distinct from any other department. The mobile computing devices you employ must therefore suit the way you and your officers work, or they won’t be used. This may seem ridiculously obvious, but all too often decisions about applications and devices are made without any input from the people who will actually use them.
If there’s one way to ensure that a mobile device will fail, choose one without user testing and feedback from real users. For example, a tablet may look really good on paper. It may have all of the right technical specifications and security protocols. It may come with outstanding purchase incentives too. But if that same tablet doesn’t have display controls to adequately adjust the brightness of the screen, it’s nearly useless. It will be too bright for officers who work at night and too weak for officers who work in the daytime. Obvious as that may seem, you may never uncover such an oversight without real-world testing. Oversights such as this have spoiled many mobile device implementations.
Perhaps the most significant aspect that differs among mobile devices is the manner of input. First, there’s the good old QWERTY keyboard, which is still best for typing. Some devices offer “virtual” QWERTY keyboards that are good once you’re used to them. Others require a stylus or pen or are touch-screen activated. These are great—in some situations, like e-citations or mapping applications. Note: Beware minuscule keys that are seemingly designed more for a first-grader than a 200-lb.
officer wearing duty gloves! That said, small keys can be OK for short messaging if mobility is your primary consideration.
When it comes to usability, be sure that the keyboard and other methods of input are intuitive enough to be adopted by personnel quickly. The smaller the device, the more likely a special form of input must be adapted. For some personnel, it will be a breeze. But for others, the notion of using a stylus, virtual keyboard or swipe-function may be cumbersome and frustrating. Ultimately, a tricky form of input can affect the efficiency and performance of otherwise highly productive personnel. So, above all, make sure the mobile device you choose doesn’t present an undue burden.
Overall, the best approach toward mobile computing is to start with the specific goals and tasks that need to be accomplished. Identify and involve the personnel who perform these tasks and get their input and feedback as early as possible. Next, choose specific devices that support a specific range of tasks—and work best for the people who need to use them. Finally, before fully engaging on a large scale, try out the device(s) with a test group that will provide constructive input.
To short-change your installation is to risk reduced efficiency in your mobile computing fleet. Following is a list of capable mount manufacturers who can help your agency get the most out of its investment.
• Jotto Desk—www.JottoDesk.net
• RAM Mounting Systems—www.RAM-mount.com
Devices to Consider
Tablets are essentially laptop replacements (without the bulk of a fold-up screen in your lap). Tablets are ideal for handling documents, reviewing digital evidence, sharing various types of information and data and more “long-term activities,” such as writing and reviewing reports.
For these kinds of tasks, the Toughbook H2 Rugged Tablet from Panasonic is worth considering—if only as a benchmark for other devices. The Toughbook H2 is a solid mobile platform and one that overcomes many common problems (input, brightness, ruggedness, speed, etc.). The Toughbook H2 also has several options including a camera, barcode and RFID readers, GPS and fingerprint scanners. And, yes, it has an excellent docking station for vehicle mounting that stands up to patrol duty.
At the other end of the spectrum, some agencies are looking at mainstream, consumer-level devices to determine their level of utility. Case in point: Redlands (Calif.) PD selected Apple’s iPad for department-wide deployment. Although there are issues with this platform that currently make it a challenging choice for law enforcement use, Redlands worked with Apple to make it effective. To see how, visit www.LawOfficer.com/video/technology-and-communications/redlands-police-departments-us.
Handhelds are ideal for tasks that are too taxing for a smartphone, but require greater mobility than a laptop or tablet may provide, making them a good choice for issuing citations, viewing records and displaying text and graphics.
A hand-held mobile computer, such as the Intermec CN3 series, may be a good option for your department. The hand-helds that make up the CN3 series are rugged and ready to accommodate just about any type of connectivity you can think of: WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS and a few types of WAN Radio (voice/data). Intermec also offers a bevy of duty-ready accessories, including several types of docking stations, an adjustable vehicle dock, magnetic strip reader and various battery packs and chargers.
Consider also the Unitech PA series of handheld mobile devices. Some of the models are just a step up from the most sophisticated smartphones, while others are truly mobile computing workhorses. The range of devices in the Unitech PA series can surely fit the demands of even the most particular duties and mobile computing strategies overall.
Panasonic’s product in this category is the U1, an incredibly rugged and full-featured device capable of incorporating a variety of data input (bar code, scan, fingerprint, etc.) It’s another device that’s worth a look.
Case in point: Tucson (Ariz.) PD deployed Panasonic Toughbook U1 to all of its motor officers, allowing them an easy, mobile platform for writing tickets and logging reports. To read more about this, visit www.Law Officer.com/article/news/tucsons-mobile-solutions.
As the term implies, smartphones are phones that can also handle a little bit of data exchange and other tasks, such as scheduling, notes and email. Broadly speaking, smartphones are better for voice communication and less ideal for intensive or prolonged data entry and exchange. A review of all smartphones and their suitability is beyond this article, but many departments have had success deploying Apple iPhones and RIM Blackberry devices.
But perhaps more important than the smartphone platform you chose is the voice/data service plan. Plans are complex and it can be difficult to quantify needs because these may vary by officer. When defining an overall mobile computing strategy, it’s worthwhile to be diligent about how smartphones actually serve your agency. As part of your strategy, the use of smartphones should be based upon a specific set of goals and tasks.
If smartphones fit in your strategy primarily for voice communication and occasional alert messaging and images, then be sure to get a service plan that supports just that. Don’t overpay for services, bandwidth and data transfer rates that don’t fit in your strategy. At the same time, don’t underestimate usage. For example, if a field officer views 20 reports a shift, four shifts a week and your average reports are 200 KB (a total of 64MB), then try to find a plan that accommodates at least 100MB per month. Bottom line: Do the math. Otherwise, you’ll either overpay for more than you need or incur expensive overcharges.
Case in point: See Dale Stockton’s take on the Baltimore PD’s deployment of smartphones at www.LawOfficer.com/article/leadership/reaching-community.
Mobile Computing Strategy Chart
•Phone Calls •Email/Messaging •Digital Media •Fingerprinting •Citations •Data-entry •Report Writing/Reviewing
Smartphones *** ** * * * * *
Handheld Mobile ** *** ** *** *** ** **
Tablets * *** *** ** ** *** ***
* = Least suited ** = Average *** = Best suited
Mobile Computer Manufacturers
• Data 911—www.data911.com
• Gamma Tech—www.gammatechusa.com
• General Dynamics—www.gd-itronix.com
• OEM Micro Solutions—www.oemmicro.com
Panasonic’s Tough Tablet - By Dale Stockton
A sneak peak at the company’s newest Toughbook
Panasonic is set to release a potentially game-changing tablet that uses the Android operating system. Nicknamed the “Tough Tablet,” Law Officer got a sneak peak at this device and it’s definitely going to catch the eye of forward-thinking practitioners. Even though there are already a lot of Android-based tablets on the market, this one will bring the Panasonic Toughbook trademark of being tough—and that’s always been a good thing for law enforcement. Make no mistake, this isn’t going to be a slick and glossy screen consumer tablet—rather, it’s built for the real world and will work well in a police environment.
“Like all Toughbook products, our Toughbook Tablet will be designed and constructed with the mission-critical mobile user in mind,” said Rance Poehler, the president of Panasonic Solutions Company.
The Toughbook Tablet will be more readable in an outdoor environment because it will include a high-brightness, daylight-viewable screen so that cops can easily see critical data and operate the device regardless of lighting conditions. The tablet uses an active stylus that will allow the capture of signatures (or drawings, notes, etc.) on a 10.1" XGA multi-touch display. Plan on additional accessories for other input options.
Recognizing that IT security is a high priority to public safety, this tablet will be enterprise-class and incorporate embedded security at the hardware level. Other features will include satellite-based GPS, a battery capable of covering a full shift and optional embedding of 3G/4G mobile broadband connectivity.
Currently, Panasonic plans a full rollout of the Toughbook Tablet during Q4 of this year. Stay tuned to www.LawOfficer.com and we’ll let you know the latest as this story develops.