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Dell Latitude Tablets Go On DEA Stakeouts

Drug Enforcement Agency testing tablets in its crime-fighting work.

Tablet Buying Demystified: 10 Tips
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Tablet Buying Demystified: 10 Tips
There's no denying that tablets have usurped many of the tasks that once belonged to PCs. But what began as the transition of Web surfing, email, video and social media to a different form factor has since become a new way of doing work and driving efficiency. Doctors now use tablets to speed up turnarounds between patients, airlines use them to save millions in fuel costs, schools count on them to enhance the classroom experience, and factory managers carry them for the control room's view wherever they go.

After infiltrating so many industries, what will tablets take on next? The Drug Enforcement Agency has an idea: fighting crime.

The DEA is currently testing Dell's Latitude 10 tablet, and could eventually roll out 6,000 of the devices to its employees. According to Mark Shafernich, the agency's CTO, the program could not only save the government millions in IT expenses but also help agents snare crooks.

"[The DEA doesn't do] IT for IT's sake," he said in an interview. "Our users -- guys with guns, special agents -- are out there, on the street, doing surveillance." Tech expenses that don't support this goal, in other words, need not apply.

[ New ultrabooks with instant-on capability and all-day battery life are moving in on laptops and tablets. Read Ultrabooks Game Just Changed. ]

The Latitude tablets might make the cut, though, because they could help the agency realize its decade-long goal of reducing the number of computers it maintains. Because DEA agents generally split their time between the field and the office, the agency must pay to service two devices -- a desktop and some kind of mobile device -- for each of these employees.

Laptops might also have been a path to device consolidation, but tablets possess several advantages. The Latitudes are not only lighter and more mobile but also cheaper than the majority of comparably secure laptops, for example. They also possess vivid 10-inch screens that are ideal for viewing surveillance photos and other intelligence documents.

"We don't have the money to do anything right now, with sequestration, but we're doing this," Shafernich said. "It's worth making this investment."

A full tablet deployment might amount to $5 million in annual IT savings just by downsizing the number of devices the agency has to manage, said Shafernich. And that sum, although already substantial, could be just the tip of the iceberg.

As agents begin to view more electronic documents on their devices, paper and printer costs could be dramatically reduced, he said. This would make agents more productive by allowing them to spend more time tracking suspects.

"My guys spend one week out of every month coming back into the office to fill out paperwork. They've got a 25% downtime when they're not surveilling bad guys," Shafernich lamented. "We want [our agents] on the street, making cases."

With the Latitudes, he foresees that more paperwork can be done in the field, meaning agents can spend less time sitting at a desk and more time pursuing leads. Because the tablets can dock into a keyboard to double as an ad-hoc laptop, "Guys can type at three in the morning while watching a dark apartment waiting for someone to come out." He cited other productivity-boosting mobile applications, such as looking at license plate readers from a car or anywhere else the agent might need to be.

If agents can improve their efficiency, the DEA won't need to put more of them on the street, Shafernich pointed out, adding, "Think how big the labor savings could be."

Shafernich said that agents initially expressed interest in the iPad but were put off by the fact that it doesn't even support mouse input, making it impractical as a laptop replacement, whereas the Latitudes boast a range of keyboards and secure peripherals. "The iPad has a sexy user interface. But this is a virtual desktop, so that sexiness goes away," Shafernich noted.

Most agents work in Windows 7 via VDI, so the merits of Windows 8, the Latitude's native OS, was not why the DEA picked the tablet. Shafernich said mobile apps and touch are "fun outside of work" but that the Latitudes appeal because of their pragmatic qualities, such as easy integration into the agency's existing security and networking infrastructure.

Time will tell whether tablets make field agents more efficient, but the DEA's interest nonetheless speaks to the many roles tablets are assuming in the workplace. Though in some ways they remain less powerful and ergonomically pleasing than a laptop or desktop, the devices have grown too functional to ignore, especially given the advantages of mobility and their low prices.

The DEA's trial deployment avoids the issue of Windows 8's learning curve, but Microsoft's controversial OS is nonetheless poised to push the tablet appeal further than its competitors. It remains the only tablet operating system that can run x86 applications, and given that Microsoft Office will soon come preinstalled on smaller tablets, Microsoft seems intent on pushing this advantage. Windows 8.1, which will be released later this month as a public preview, is expected to improve the OS's user friendliness, and if it succeeds, Windows 8's combination of mobility and legacy compatibility could make it a BYOD force.

The success of Microsoft's OS aside, the tablet's worthiness as an enterprise-class tool becomes more apparent with each passing month. PCs will remain the primary device for many employees, but it's clear that tablets' usefulness is only increasing, and they will be workplace fixtures for the foreseeable future.

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Michael Endler
Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
6/18/2013 | 4:15:33 PM
re: Dell Latitude Tablets Go On DEA Stakeouts
That's all true-- it's the form factor, screen and peripherals that the DEA likes, not Windows 8. As the article says:

"Most agents work in Windows 7 via VDI, so the
merits of Windows 8, the Latitude's native OS, was not why the DEA
picked the tablet. Shafernich said mobile apps and touch are 'fun
outside of work' but that the Latitudes appeal because of their
pragmatic qualities, such as easy integration into the agency's existing
security and networking infrastructure."

It should probably be pointed out that some other tablet deployments (e.g. Seton Hall, Clear Creek Independent School District) have involved the appeal of not only the tablet form factor but also Windows 8. But in this case, the DEA is interested because Dell built a useful machine. That the Latitudes run Windows 8 was important only insofar as the devices use a Windows OS; Shafernich made clear that he prefers managing Windows to iOS. But that's not really about Win8 in particular.

Michael Endler, IW Associate Editor
EMM Guru
EMM Guru,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/17/2013 | 8:25:22 PM
re: Dell Latitude Tablets Go On DEA Stakeouts
I am intimately familiar with this project and the "tablet" is just a dumb terminal for the DEA's virtual desktop environment. All the work they are doing is being done in the secure data center and the user's are just manipulating screen shots on the tablet. Honestly it could be any tablet and the only reason it was Windows 8 was because it supported more peripherals, including an integrated Smart Card reader for authentication to the VDI environment. This is more a testament to Dell building a product that makes sense for enterprise & government and then it is for Windows 8 tablets.
User Rank: Author
6/13/2013 | 11:08:15 PM
re: Dell Latitude Tablets Go On DEA Stakeouts
I don't know, a tablet sounds to me like a more practical device than a laptop for a mobile job like this. I think Michael's point of whether you'll still end up needing two devices is the big test.
Michael Endler
Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
6/13/2013 | 9:11:29 PM
re: Dell Latitude Tablets Go On DEA Stakeouts
If it makes you feel any better, when the DEA showed up in Oakland a while back to shut down a bunch of dispensaries, the locals did their best to chase the agents out of town. It wasn't just the protestors you'd expect, either-- seemed clear a lot of East Bay residents would rather have law enforcement dedicating resources elsewhere.

But that point aside, I'm pretty sure the long-term impacts of managing fewer devices (and that the devices are cheaper than the ones they replace) has been factored into their cost projections. Tablets get refreshed more often than laptops traditionally have been, and companies and institutions are generally mindful of this. I'm more curious whether the tablets are useful enough to boost productivity, especially if they're replacing desktops in some cases, or if the agency ends up needing two devices for many employees.
User Rank: Apprentice
6/13/2013 | 6:20:30 PM
re: Dell Latitude Tablets Go On DEA Stakeouts
""We don't have the money to do anything right now, with sequestration, but we're doing this," Shafernich said. "

Says it all doesn't it? We don't have money to fight crime, so we are going to spend less fighting crime, and get the boys 6,000 slick new laptops that will be outdated and obsolete in 2 years. Ya, sounds like a real good idea. Maybe they can roll over a few more state legal medical marijuana dispensaries to help they pay for it..
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