Everybody Wants An App Store
A number of trends are driving the emergence of federal application stores.
Application marketplaces reminiscent of Apple's App Store are starting to pop up across government. The National Security Agency has one. So does the General Services Administration. The Army and the U.S. Marshals Service are developing marketplaces as well.
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A number of trends are driving the emergence of federal application stores, including the ever-advancing adoption of smartphones, client virtualization, and a push toward smaller software projects and new ways of buying IT. But recent history suggests agencies will have to work hard to attract developers to their app stores.
The National Security Agency's Ozone Marketplace hosts Web apps created with its internally developed Ozone widget application development framework. Other intelligence agencies and services within the Army and Navy have developed widgets using the Ozone framework, and NSA would like to expand the marketplace to the broader intelligence community and the military, so any of them can share appropriate apps.
"We're not going to out-Apple Apple, but we need to make sure our workforce is exposed to the same technologies and that we offer them the same technologies," NSA CIO Lonny Anderson said in an interview with InformationWeek Government earlier this spring. "We've adopted an app-like approach to developing capabilities because we want our workforce to be able to sit down and say, 'This app works for me, that app works for me,' and then plug and play right in front of them."
Among the apps built with the Ozone framework are prototype command and control widgets by the Office of Naval Research that would give users a drill-down view of the status of ships, plotted on a map. Another is a collection of prototype widgets built by the Army Research Laboratory to let intelligence analysts and others track information on "high-value individuals."
The Army effort is part of a larger software transformation strategy that aims to get applications to soldiers faster. One challenge: The Army's RFP process is built to deal with big, established vendors, but the marketplace aims to draw startups and small businesses.
Federal CIO Vivek Kundra called the app store concept "underrated" at InformationWeek Government's IT Leadership Forum last month. "These really large-scale IT projects, where you were spending 12 years, a billion dollars without any functionality deployed--that era is over," Kundra said. The future is building enterprise capabilities bit by bit, like "cells of a human body," he said.
The Army plans to put "challenges" out to individual developers and small firms, where it lays out a specific need, asks developers to build something for it, and lets the best code win. Standards are important here. Ozone, for example, will be the Army's standard framework for more quickly developing thin-client apps and Web apps.
The U.S. Marshals Service is developing an apps store to provide approved applications to users as part of a six-month test--which Apple's involved in--of iPads, iPhones, and Android devices in the field. Lisa Davis, CIO of the Marshals Service, says the app store will be shared by her agency and by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, another Justice agency. It's one of the first examples of a mobile app store shared by federal agencies.
Experience suggests one major challenge will be attracting developers and users. The government hosts a public-facing catalog on Data.gov of "apps" developed by fed agencies, which purports to host 1,003 apps. But most are just mobile websites, downloadable widgets to add to users' own sites, and links to RSS feeds. Apps.gov, the feds' first big app marketplace, hasn't been a success from a download or sales standpoint, despite being online for more than 20 months.