Research in Motion Ltd.’s PlayBook tablet computer, panned at its April debut, has an edge over Apple Inc.’s iPad in the Army thanks to RIM’s encrypted servers.
That advantage may soon dissipate as Apple’s more broadly popular devices march toward Defense Department security certification, which may come as early as this month, military officials said.
Tablet computers are being tested across all military branches, according to interviews conducted by Bloomberg Government since May 17. The services pay $500 to $600 per tablet, less than half the cost of laptops that are “ruggedized,” or enhanced with a shell and toughened to withstand harsh environments. Tablets also may replace paper manuals, maps, biometric devices and some communications tools.
The U.S. Army is leaning toward the PlayBook because RIM “addressed security concerns from the get-go,” said Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Dosmann, who oversees mobile device pilot-testing for the Army’s cybersecurity division. Security remains an issue for Apple and may hold back wider use of iPads, he said.
Apple, Dell Inc., RIM and other tablet makers are vying to tap the military market for computers, laptops and servers worth $2.9 billion in the government’s 2010 fiscal year. Of that amount, spending on enhanced laptops was $33 million. The department spent $37 million on tablets in the same fiscal year, according to Bloomberg data.
Tablets are a “disruptive technology” that can replace heavier and more expensive equipment, Dosmann said. “As an infantry soldier, the last thing I want is something more to carry.”
To secure the devices so they can only be accessed using the common access card carried by all military service members and Defense employees, the services must install additional software or hardware, Gary Winkler, the Army’s former program executive officer for enterprise information systems, said in a June 20 telephone interview. Winkler oversaw about $4 billion, or 56 percent, of the Army’s information-technology budget.
“It’s very tough to drive the manufacturers to make the tablets and the devices with the embedded security that only the Defense Department needs or only parts of the federal government needs because the market just isn’t big enough,” said Winkler, who now heads Fairfax, Virginia-based Cyber Solutions and Services Inc., a government consulting and contracts support company.
The iPhone and iPad already interact with the common access card, or CAC, and will be approved soon, possibly this month, Winkler said. Security engineering is under way for Google Inc.’s Android operating system. Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Mobile operating system was CAC-enabled more than a year ago.
BlackBerry smartphones, which run on RIM’s secure servers, already are approved by the Defense Department and in use on the battlefield. The PlayBook runs on the same servers, Dosmann said.
The Defense Contract Management Agency, which oversees defense contractors’ performance, is pilot-testing about 20 tablet computers, including the iPad and PlayBook, Jacob Haynes, acting chief information officer for DCMA, said in an interview.
“The next six months are going to be the biggest six months in mobile IT history, especially for the federal government,” Haynes said.
Security concerns haven’t reduced enthusiasm for iPads among military service members. Aircrews in the U.S. Marines, Air Force and Navy are using iPads unconnected to the Internet.
The Air Force’s Air Mobility Command is testing iPads as a replacement for the traditional flight bag pilots use to store paper navigation charts and manuals. Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California released an invitation for bids for 100 black iPad 2s, according to a May 25 online notice.
“Tablet devices represent a totally new technology with flexibility and portability benefits that may reduce publication and printing costs across the command,” Kathleen Ferrero, a spokeswoman for Air Mobility Command, said in an e-mail on June 10.
The Navy has purchased 30 iPads to store aircrew documents, according to Amanda Greenberg, spokeswoman for the service. It’s also testing Android and Windows 7 operating systems, she said. BlackBerry is the only mobile device allowed to access Navy’s network at this point.
Dell, based in Round Rock, Texas, is testing its Streak tablet with Defense Department. “We are not trying to compete with the iPad,” John Marinho, Dell’s director of enterprise mobility and services, said in a telephone interview. “The iPad is a great device, but it’s a consumer device. It doesn’t address all of the pain points that we do.”
Tablet procurements will spike before year’s end, Dosmann said, though some of the devices may not be allowed to access Army’s network.
Apple’s mobile operating system was the first tablet for which the Defense Information Systems Agency created a security procedure, said Lieutenant Colonel April Cunningham, a Defense Department spokeswoman. DISA is working on a procedure for Android devices.
IPads, PlayBooks and other tablets won’t completely displace the ruggedized laptops and other small computers in the department, Cunningham said.
“If you drop a couple $500 tablets and destroy them, then maybe you could have paid for a ruggedized laptop which may have better survived the impact,” she said.
Companies are creating “ruggedized” tablets to solve this problem, said Frank Smith, CIO and vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., a strategic adviser for government agencies. Enhancing a tablet adds about 40 percent to its price, he said.
So far, the military services have bought tablets directly from manufacturers and through resellers in small lots. In the future, the Defense Department will use “traditional procurement methods” to buy the devices in bulk, Cunningham said.
Apple spokeswoman Trudy Miller and Research in Motion spokeswoman Jamie Ernst declined to comment.