Magazine article National Defense

Army's iPhone Dreams Clash with Reality

Magazine article National Defense

Army's iPhone Dreams Clash with Reality

Article excerpt

The Army this year launched with much fanfare an "apps" competition on the premise that techies will design soldier-friendly smart-phone applications.

The hoopla over apps, however, may be premature, as it could be years before the Army is ready to adopt smartphones as standard soldier equipment.

Credit for the Army's foray into smartphone technology in part goes to Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who while commanding troops in Iraq, became keenly aware of soldiers' unquenchable thirst for information.

The equipment the Army provides, Chiarelli contended, is outdated, user-unfriendly and expensive. The iPhone, by contrast, is state of the art, easy to use and, by Army standards, dirt cheap. Why couldn't soldiers load up the apps they need for their particular jobs and have a single device that does it all? From their phone, they could tap into the "blue force tracker" that tells them the location of friendly forces. They could pull up Google-like maps and pinpoint the geographic location of those forces. Or, while on patrols, they could receive live video feeds from surveillance aircraft.

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Chiarelli's musings about the iPhone and his criticism of the current communications systems sent shockwaves through the Pentagon's information-technology community and defense contractors. "After Chiarelli said he wanted iPhones, the technologists went crazy," said a senior defense industry executive.

The commotion was understandable, considering the wide cultural chasm between the iPhone business model and the way the Army develops and buys technology. "It is a great vision, but it clashes with the reality on the ground," said the executive.

Naysayers notwithstanding, the Army's Chief Information Officer Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson spearheaded the apps contest and endorsed the notion that Army software development should be more like Apple's.

As to whether smartphones will become standard equipment, it is too soon to say, said a Sorenson spokesman.

"The Army has invested in pilot efforts to encourage development of Army applications for smartphones and to assess any potential issues," said the spokesman in response to questions from National Defense. "In addition to developing Army applications, we are determining the pros and cons associated with equipping the war fighters with a wide variety of smartphones."

Any smartphones that the Army buys would not be able to run sensitive "battle command" applications because these would be incompatible with the phone's operating system. The Army CIO spokesman said there are no plans at this time to shift the development of battle-command applications to open-source operating systems.

Maj. Gen. Keith Walker, who commands an Army unit that experiments with new technology at Fort Bliss, Texas, said one of those pilot programs is to upload maintenance and instruction manuals on smartphones. "We're going to outfit 200 soldiers in the brigade this year with an iPhone like device," Walker said during a telephone news conference. "They'll have the apps for system maintenance, instruction manuals. ... Soldiers will give us feedback and comments on performance of the equipment, Wikipedia-like."

Walker cautioned that none of the smartphones will be used for voice communications. "Soldiers will not use these to call home," he said. "They'll be connected with each other in an internal network."

The Army's flirtation with the iPhone has rekindled a long-standing debate about why the Defense Department consistently fails to take advantage of advances in commercial technology. Experts are split on the issue. Some believe the Army's procurement system is to blame for saddling soldiers with equipment that becomes outdated before it even reaches the users. Others argue that it would be too risky and expensive for the Army to dump its current systems and military-unique networks in favor of "cloud computing" and open-source software. …

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