Apple's iPhone 4S sold four million units in its first weekend of sales. But the entire rugged phone industry sells only half as many devices over the course of an entire year.
That's a good definition of niche market, according to figures from IDC, and one that's noticeably lacking in smartphones. We spoke with Sonim's CEO Bob Plaschke about his company's line of rugged phones, how the likes of Motorola and Samsung are trying to compete, and why we haven't seen a truly rugged smartphone—yet.
Sonim has a made a nice living over the past few years selling ruggedized feature phones to users in security industries, oil and gas utilities, agriculture, and heavy manufacturing—fields where typical phones just won't cut it.
These people want a phone that can last an entire day outdoors without a power source; a screen they can still see outdoors; buttons or touch functionality that are responsive enough to be used with a glove; or a speaker that can ring incredibly loud.
"All those things you can't find in an Otterbox, you can't find in a case for iPhone," Plaschke says, attempting to dispel the notion that ruggedization is only about build quality and weatherproofing. Device protection is a big deal in the consumer market, but it's only half the battle as far as business users in the field are concerned.
As we previously covered, ruggedized phones are often built to adhere to a number of industry standards for dust, water, and drop protection. The problem is that these protections require materials and construction that aren't found in your typical smartphone. This can pose a financial burden on manufacturers when the market for rugged phones is so small.
"We couldn't convince the large OEMs like Samsung or Motorola to build ruggedized phones for this class of folks," Plaschke says of years past. "They were willing to put some rubber on the phones, around the edges and make it waterproof, but they weren't willing to build to the specifications that these folks who work outdoors demand."
Of course, times have changed, and the likes of Samsung, Motorola, and even Casio are now making ruggedized smartphones that adhere to industry specs—with the promise of surviving low-temperatures and four-foot drops. But Plaschke feels there are still certain areas where smartphone ruggedness falls flat, at least when compared to the standards met by previous Sonim phones.