Fed Mobile Computing Market Grows Despite Private-Sector Woes

Fed Mobile Computing Market Grows Despite Private-Sector Woes<@VM>Adding Real Value<@VM>Showing What They're Made Of

In the private sector, mobile computing has all but disappeared from the list of "Next Big Things." Once touted as the technology that would revolutionize how people work, it has been stifled by a lack of services and inadequate bandwidth.

Mobile computing "was a fad that never happened," said Richard Owen, president of AvantGo Inc., San Mateo, Calif., which produces software for personal digital assistants, or PDAs, and Internet-enabled mobile phones, including a package that provides Republican senators with daily news updates.

GartnerGroup, Stamford, Conn., attributes the mobile computing drop-off to timing, cost and market demand.

"Users are still waiting for the technological capabilities, waiting for price to come down and waiting for availability," said analyst Philip Redman.

While the private sector suffers through what Redman called a "trough of disillusionment," the federal market for mobile technology continues to expand.

"There is a growing realization that field workers and other government employees who need to be mobile can have access to their mission-critical applications via handheld devices," said Ken Whitehead, director of federal operations at Aether Systems Inc., Owings Mills, Md. Aether produces software for PDAs, for pagers made by Research In Motion, Waterloo, Ontario, and other mobile devices used by the U.S. Postal Service, Army, Navy and 1,000 state and local public safety agencies nationwide.While IT spending in the commercial market is declining, the federal market is exhibiting the opposite trend. According to an October report from GartnerGroup, IT spending by U.S. federal, state and local governments will continue to grow at a healthy rate through 2004. As a result, many vendors are switching their emphasis to the public sector to make up for their private-sector woes.

Being in the government market requires an understanding of its unique procurement procedures as well as the needs of federal customers. Contractors have to offer economical solutions to fundamental operating needs, not just faster access to sports scores or movie times, as have been touted in the commercial marketplace.

Gartner analysts said as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks, governments will give a higher priority to geographic information systems, security, disaster recovery, collaborative commerce, biometrics and mobile and wireless communication. Many of these areas are ripe for mobile technology.

While much of the initial excitement over mobile computing focused on items such as location-based services and streaming video, the emphasis has now shifted to more mundane but practical items.

"People have found real value with improving basic processes," Owen said, citing as an example the cost savings achieved by having people fill out forms onsite rather than waiting until they return to the office. "That's real business, very practical, with obvious returns," he said.

Overall he sees a shift from "soft" to "hard" return on investment. Soft ROI refers to those somewhat nebulous projected gains achieved by making employees more productive through giving them increased access to information. Hard ROI, on the other hand, consists of directly observable and measurable results gained through increased speed, greater efficiency and reduced errors.

Agencies get real value from wireless technology by enabling employees to do their day-to-day tasks in a more efficient, effective way.

"People are now spending more on wireless than in the past," he said, "because they are getting real benefit."

Taoling Xie, director of marketing for Computer Associates Inc., Islandia, N.Y., agreed that practical applications are the way to increase the use of mobile computing.

"We are talking about ways to save money, and there is nothing sexier than doing more with less money," he said.

The biggest barrier to widespread adoption of mobile computing is security.

"Vendors must offer high-level security," said Gartner's Redman. "Privacy, encryption and authentication are very important technologies, coupled with the ease of management."

The media regularly covers high-profile cases of stolen laptops, such as the January 2000 disappearance of a laptop with top-secret information about weapons proliferation from a supposedly secure conference room in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

While this laptop was probably stolen to get the data it contained, far more of them disappear simply because they are expensive but easily stolen items. According to Safeware Insurance Agency Inc., Columbus, Ohio, approximately 387,000 notebook computers were stolen last year, a 20 percent increase over 1999.

Mobile device theft presents two security problems. Stealing such a device gives access both to an agency's network and the data contained on the hard drive or device memory itself. The problem is bad enough with agency-owned devices, but it becomes more complicated when employees purchase their own PDAs outside the purview of the IT staff, and then download network data onto them.

Security, therefore, represents a make-or-break point in any type of federal mobile contract.

"Many of the federal agencies, such as the Justice Department, are mandating that every computer device, both stationary and mobile, have the most inclusive level of security protecting their data, which involves access control, strong authentication and strong encryption," said Doug Chalmers, president of PointSec Mobile Technologies Inc. The Walnut Creek, Calif., company provides mobile security software to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Agriculture Department, the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies.

"We have been told that any device that does not contain such security is in jeopardy of being destroyed, because the loss of critical information could be devastating and could cost the agency more damage and financial loss than the cost of a $500 or $5,000 device," Chalmers said.

He noted that the FBI has state-of-the-art equipment, but agents are only allowed to save files on floppy disks, not on the hard drive, because of the security risk.

To improve security, the Defense Department has begun rolling out 4 million Common Access smart cards. While this is a step in the right direction, Chalmers said department employees are also buying their own PDAs and hooking them up to the enterprise systems through the mouse port on their workstations.

PointSec's encryption software addresses both these issues: security of stored data and the introduction of unauthorized devices. The encryption takes place automatically, so one never has to rely on the end user. If former CIA Director John Deutch can make the mistake of having thousands of pages of classified documents on his insecure home computer, it's probable that others are doing worse.

When a device first connects to the network, the PointSec software automatically downloads onto the device. From there on, whenever the user saves a file, the encryption happens.

"A primary reason the IRS was holding back from acquiring more mobile devices was the lack of acceptable mobile security solutions that could be centrally deployed and administered," Chalmers said. "Now that these enterprise security solutions exist, there should be no reason for any agency not to expand their implementation of mobile devices."Another essential factor for mobile devices is putting them to work. According to the Aberdeen Group of Boston, $2.3 billion was spent on PDAs last year, a figure expected to nearly triple to $6.6 billion by 2005.

Although these devices are capable of linking into enterprise applications, right now they are primarily being used to access e-mail or keep a calendar, and not much else.

"Mobile computing will find wide acceptance when you can really do mobile computing," said Michael Lee, director of telecommunications partner programs in the global network services unit of Unisys Corp., Blue Bell, Pa. "So far, we are working on short messages, for example, 'Call Home,' that are designed to use what bandwidth we have."

Third-generation wireless technology is coming, which allows the creation and use of richer applications. Applications, however, can't simply be converted into wireless markup language with the hope that they will somehow be useful on a two-inch screen. The processes must be rethought and redesigned. As these issues get resolved, mobile computing will be put to greater use.

"When users can sit down at a remote location and perform like they are in their office but on a wireless connection, it will move," Lee said.

In the meantime, however, there is still plenty that can be done within the bounds of existing technology.

"It's foolish to make technology plans based on promised systems to come," Owen said. "It's important to understand that today's devices offer a lot of potential for improvement of governmental operations."

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