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Some hidden pitfalls of government BYOD

Last week I moderated a fascinating panel discussion at GCN’s Third Annual Government Mobility Forum , on the topic of how mobile technology is changing the government enterprise.   

The event featured two very knowledgeable speakers:  Francois Lascelles, the chief architect for Layer 7 Technologies, and Michael Tucker, the mobility application sales manager for AT&T. Each approached government concerns and audience questions from different angles. Tucker more focused on devices and user experience while Lascelles talked about the back-end that makes it all happen.

I wanted to touch on a few of the concerns that surfaced about bring your own device [BYOD] initiatives, including some areas I had never considered. The reaction of the audience seemed to suggest that they hadn't really thought much about it either.

AT&T’s Tucker pointed out how competition among smartphone makers affects management of the devices.  Because the Blackberry OS had no competition for a long time, he said, OS updates were infrequent, perhaps once a year. This was a good thing for feds because all operating systems need to be certified to work on most networks. 

The problem with moving to either Android or Apple iOS is that because they are in tight competition with one another, their OSs tend to update quite often. In some cases, updates are pushed out to users who don't really have any choice but to accept them. The problem for government is that when an OS is updated, it's no longer technically certified to work on a government network. 

Users with updated phones will either be denied access or will be operating with non-certified devices, Tucker said. Given that it can take six months to certify an OS, those certifications tend to run way behind the actual updating process, causing quite a headache for some agencies. 

Lascelles brought up another potential pitfall that may be overlooked by government. 

Most applications need to be serviced from an app store, he said, whether it’s a special place set up by government agencies or simply the public store used by everyone. Attempts to put government applications in public stores have failed in the past, even if they have hidden components to make them secure. Not only are they a big target for hackers, but such hidden schemes often don’t work the way they should, he cautioned.

Managing a private app store can work instead, but  is difficult to do if users have many devices, such as in a wide-open BYOD setup. One possible solution would be to have public apps that can be downloaded, but which have secure registration components that trigger the actual install, Lascelles suggested. But those apps would have to be made from the ground up to work that way.

An interesting question asked at the panel was why agencies that are moving away from Blackberry, which still has an estimated 85 to 95 percent hold on government, want to move to Android or iOS when Windows is also a valid platform. With Windows 8, the questioner pointed out, you have the same OS on tablets, desktops and phones, so the compatibility issues are mostly eliminated. 

The answer, according to the panelists, is simply one of demand within the developer community. Few developers are making apps for the desktop side of Windows 8, and interest is even sparser for Windows mobile, especially when compared to Android or iOS. So while Windows mobile might make sense for government, moving to it in mass might mean standardizing on a platform with few usable applications — and no new ones in sight.

It was clear from the panel that government is increasingly interested in mobile and has unique concerns that private companies don't have to worry about. But it was also clear there's a long way to go before these problems are sorted out.

Posted by John Breeden II on Nov 14, 2013 at 8:28 AM


Reader Comments

Fri, Nov 15, 2013 Jose Meteron DISA

Thank you Mr. Breeden for letting me know about some of the issues raised at the conference. I wanted to be there but could not make it at the last minute and sent a colleague of mine instead. Will you be following up with more details about the panel and some of the issues that were raised there? I heard it was quite lively and very interesting. Those of us in DOD are facing so many issues when it comes to BYOD and even mobile in general that we would love to learn as much as we can. Looking forward to hearing more from you on this topic. Thank you.

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