FedEx rolls out rugged mobile computers from Motorola

Fedex plans to roll out up to 100,000 of Motorola's new MC9500 rugged mobile handhelds in the next two to three years, making it the fourth generation of mobile computers used by Fedex couriers and workers in package warehouses.

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Fedex plans to roll out up to 100,000 of Motorola's new MC9500 rugged mobile handhelds in the next two to three years, making it the fourth generation of mobile computers used by Fedex couriers and workers in package warehouses.

The MC9500, announced earlier today and already shipping, will offer features Fedex has not had in its handhelds, including GPS. It also offers enhancements that could be critical, including the ability to swap out radios to work with different wireless carriers as needed, Fedex representatives said today.

"This is a high-end device, and has everything but the kitchen sink," said Matthew Berardi, managing director of field technology for FedEx Ground.

The MC9500 comes in four versions, priced up to $3,295 (£2,000), Motorola said at its event at New York's Museum of Arts and Design. One primary distinction in the four versions is the ability to swap out four different keypads, depending on use, so that the keypad can offer more numeric or more alphabetic functions as needed.

A key value for Fedex is the MC9500's high level of ruggedness: it can be dropped and submerged in water and will still operate, said Ken Pasley, IT director of wireless technologies for FedEx. Motorola officials showed a video of workers slamming the MC9500 to the ground, driving a vehicle over it, dunking it in a fish pool and even using it as an ice scraper on a windshield. In one video segment, firefighters dropped it from a height of 85 feet and still were able to boot it and use it.

"I can tell you that every one of those scenarios will be encountered at FedEx," Pasley said. FedEx currently uses a custom-made device from Motorola, commonly referred to as the PowerPad.

Berardi and Pasley said the GPS will be valuable for tracking vehicles and drivers, offering even better real-time package tracking for customers. And the MC9500's ability to work on faster 3.5G networks, including HSDPA and EVDO Rev. A, and greater efficiencies with scanning and data capture could allow for faster deliveries.

For example, a courier arriving at an office building and finding a larger-than-normal load of packages can communicate that information quicker, allowing the company to order up larger trucks or aircraft to speed up the delivery process.

A new battery meter will also help lower costs and prevent drivers from picking up units with dead batteries when starting a shift. The technology is something Motorola picked up from batteries in consumer devices. In addition, a failed battery will be indicated with an X. Motorola estimated that the battery meter and power management features in the MC9500 would help save 2,600 hours annually for 600 users.

The MC9500 should perform well in the market, said David Krebs, a wireless analyst at VDC Research. He said part of the reason is that it builds on the success of the Motorola MC9000, which is the industry's best-selling rugged handheld, with 1.5 million units shipped. The new MC9500 is lighter and more ergonomic, and will have power management features that are unique in the market. (The device turns off when it's placed face down, for example.)

Motorola currently has about 40% of the total market for rugged handhelds. Intermec follows with less than 20%, and Psion and LXE each have less than 10%, Krebs said.

Growth in rugged device industry is robust, despite the sour economy, he said. Krebs estimated that 300 million workers globally will be equipped with rugged devices by 2012, more than double current levels.

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