When the exotic becomes mainstream
Starting with administrative needs, smart phones are making their way to the front line
It’s amazing how quickly smart phones and tablets, along with their app-driven user experience, have started to drive a lot of the conversation about government communications and IT. Two years ago they were still fairly exotic items, now they’re almost mainstream considerations.
The military in particular has taken the mobile bit between its teeth. In April 2011, Defense Department CIO Teri Takai was telling conference attendees that the adoption of mobile technologies was a key priority for DOD, especially consumer technologies such as iPhone and Android smart phones.
By the end of the 2011, the Pentagon had approved devices using Dell’s version of the Android 2.2 operating system for accessing military networks, though other approvals were expected during 2012. The goal is to have Android smart phones and tablets able to connect to the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network by summer, Michael McCarthy, program manager and director of operations for the Army Brigade Modernization Command, said at the recent Soldier 2012 conference.
Military officials were also predicting that smart phones could be provided to deploying soldiers later in 2012. Most of these first devices are expected to be used for more administrative needs and to hold such things as training manuals that would otherwise have to be provided in paper format. But the idea is eventually to use smart-phone technology for front-line applications and in more hostile environments.
One of the results of the Network Integration Evaluation exercise held in October 2011 was to redesign the Army’s Nett Warrior, a vital system that will give soldiers a high degree of situational awareness on the battlefield. The latest version of the program will use a smart phone or tablet device plugged into a Joint Tactical Radio System Rifleman Radio to send and receive data.
Nett Warrior probably won’t use commercial smart phones or tablets. But those devices could find their way into other uses, in either ruggedized or fully rugged forms.
The advance of Android smart phones and tablets, as well as Apple’s iPad, will definitely influence the rugged IT business, said Panasonic’s Tim Collins, though there’s been no net effect yet because the area is at such an early stage of development.
“But our plan is to be right there with them so that, as they need rugged products in those form factors, we’ll be there to provide them,” he said.
The company introduced its first “Toughpad” tablet — an extension of its well-known Toughbook family of laptop computers — in November of 2011. With a 10-inch, 1,024 x 768 pixel display, it uses a 1.2GHz dual-core processor and comes with next-generation, 4G LTE connectivity as well as WiMAX. Its ruggedness is rated to Mil-Std 810G.
It should be available around May or June of 2012, Collins said, though the company has already been out seeding the market with presentations and mock-up units. A 7-inch B1 Toughpad will also appear at some point, though a firm date hadn’t been set at press time.
Collins believes the reputation that Panasonic’s Toughbook computers has gained over the past decade will quickly win the A1 some support. But he also expects converts from those who use cheaper, commercial Android tablets or iPads in non-office environments.
They’ll “quickly find that the lack of ruggedness will end up costing them an exorbitant amount of money on warranty and service claims, not to mention downtime for critical processes that could end up being life-threatening,” he said.
Other companies are starting to join the fray. Harris Corp., for example, in February introduced the Harris RF-3590, a 7-inch ruggedized Android tablet aimed at the “tactical edge” of the military.
Overall, said VDC’s David Krebs, rugged IT vendors are between a rock and a hard place. They are being pressured to deliver a product that has a long shelf life and long enterprise life cycles, while also having to design products to withstand tricky environments, which is not easy. At the same time, they have to contend with a consumerization push that is affecting every way of life.
“There is a new expectation of how mobile technology is expected to function, and that has everything to do with the user interface and the application design,” he said. “So they are trying to keep pace with popular technology development and trying to do that with products that are maybe not state of the art but that, nevertheless, need to be sufficiently current."
What you are starting to see with many organizations is a conversation about using “rugged enough” devices. These are consumer devices that have been hardened in some way, and are a step or two down from the ruggedized products they may have used before. Depending on the user, Krebs said he’s even seeing the encroachment of non-rugged solutions into the market, particularly where they are used mainly for such things as administrative functions or training purposes.
“However, at the end of the day, if you are talking about using these for hard-core military applications, you’ll end up sitting on a mountain of broken product,” he said.