Federal Agencies Embrace iPhones, iPads

The ability to build tactical applications and lure and retain tech-savvy employees have made Apple's smartphones and tablets more viable at government offices.

Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributor

June 1, 2011

5 Min Read

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June 2011 InformationWeek Government Digital Issue

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When President Obama was elected, much was made about his affection for his BlackBerry and whether he'd be allowed to keep it once he assumed office because of security concerns.

In the end, the controversy was a tempest in a teapot. With added security, Obama kept his treasured device. But now in his third year in office, the president has been seen toting a new gadget around the White House--an Apple iPad.

As is happening in the business world, Apple's iPhones and iPads are showing up in ever more places in federal government. A growing number of agencies are testing Apple devices in field trials, and some have begun distributing them to workers.

What does this mean for RIM's BlackBerry, which is widely used by the feds? It's too early to say that Apple's gain in government will translate into RIM's pain. A RIM spokesperson said the company has more than 1 million subscribers in federal government and that that number, contrary to some reports, is still growing.

"What you're seeing isn't iPhones replacing BlackBerries and RIM devices straight up, but government agencies are looking to provide more choices because of their concerns about attracting and retaining talent," said Forrester Research analyst T.J. Keitt. "There is a belief that if [federal managers] allow for more device flexibility, it will make the workplace more attractive."

Federal officials appear to be more open minded about letting employees use their gadgets and applications of choice in the workplace. Last year, federal CIO Vivek Kundra, who is looking to close the "tech gap" between the consumer and government markets met with Apple, Google, Facebook, and other Silicon Valley companies. Earlier this year, Kundra floated the idea of giving federal workers a $2,000 subsidy toward the mobile device of their choosing.

Security-minded federal IT managers are being careful not to move too fast. Rather than throw open the doors to all types of devices and applications, they're deploying iPads and other devices in limited quantities, while developing applications and establishing policies for them. The Department of Interior and Department of Veterans Affairs both have distributed a limited number of iPads to employees to experiment with their use. Interior was looking to acquire iPads under a two-year contract that would also cover the acquisition of MacBook Pro laptops, Air notebooks, and Mac desktops.

The Army is issuing iPhones, iPads, Android-based devices, Touch Pros, Palm Treos, and Kindles as part of its Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications program. The program aims to equip soldiers with the communications and other tools they need from the classroom to the battlefield.

One of the key reasons Apple and Android-based smartphones and tablets are becoming popular with federal agencies is their ability to support video and other graphics-rich applications, Keitt said.

A pilot project at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms provides a glimpse of the possibilities. ATF ran a pilot using iPhones and other smartphones that let agents in the field monitor surveillance video taken by IP cameras of drug trafficking and other crimes. The idea, similar to the Army's interest in the devices, is to give agents access to pertinent information anytime, anywhere.

Agents with the U.S. Marshals Service today carry BlackBerries. But the agency is mid-way into a six month trial of iPads, iPhones, and Android-based devices, according to its CIO, Lisa Davis. Homeland Security border patrol agents are also reportedly using iPhones.

One potential snag for Uncle Sam is that federal agencies may not have the developer resources to support these efforts. "You need specialized knowledge to develop mobile apps for Androids and iPhones," Keitt said. "It's not something that can be looked at as a spare-time project."

Obama's Tech Tools

Obama's Tech Tools

(click image for larger view)
Slideshow: Obama's TechTools

The Army is looking to solve that problem with its Apps for the Army contest, which it recently opened to outside developers. Other federal agencies are developing "app stores"--based loosely on the Apple model--where employees can download government-approved applications for mobile devices.

As agencies look to let more users carry new devices loaded with an expanding array of applications, securing those devices has become a top priority. In one example of how that might happen, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has issued a request for information on full disk and system encryption for mobile devices. The agency said the encryption should be applicable not just within the military, suggesting intelligence and civilian agencies could adopt any technical solution it develops.

It's too early to say which of the new mobile devices will prove most popular in government. After all, it was the Android that got the nod for a new mobile framework the Army is building to support a range of custom-built applications soldiers can use on the battlefield. Apple will be one choice, but it will be one of many.

GTEC brings together leading public and private sector experts to collaborate on serving Canadian citizens better through innovation and technology. It happens in Ottawa, Oct. 17-20. Find out more.

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