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.
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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.