Dave Rensin | Handhelds on fire, WiFi on guard

Interview with Dave Rensin, CEO of Reality Mobile LLC

Dave Rensin, mobile computing expert

In 1997, Dave Rensin headed a mobile computing practice at Noblestar Systems, an IT integration firm. Among his projects was a contract with the Pentagon to build a secure Palm handheld for deployment in Bosnia. 'These units were going to have field tactical data on them,' Rensin said.

Back then, information security was a nascent art, and Rensin's group had a hard time coming up with a platform that satisfied Pentagon planners.

'Nothing was ever secure enough for them. They had the paranoid meter dialed up to 12.'

After another in a series of frustrating trips to the Pentagon, Rensin returned to Noblestar's offices and smelled burning plastic. It turned out an engineer working on a separate contract had written code for overclocking a Palm and achieving more performance. The overheated Palm was melting before their eyes. A light bulb went on.

'So I call the lieutenant colonel up and say, 'We've got it solved,' ' Rensin said. Then, in front of skeptical Pentagon officials, Rensin demonstrated a secure Palm platform that overheated and self-destructed when an unauthorized user tried to access its contents. It was a winner. For his troubles, Rensin received a civilian commendation from the Army.

Today, Rensin is a respected expert on mobile computing issues and CEO of Reality Mobile LLC, a consulting firm in Herndon, Va. The company helps customers, many in the intelligence community, assess and execute wireless and mobile computing projects. The company also develops specialized applications. While at Noblestar, Rensin created Scout, which evolved into standard middleware for connecting handheld devices to server applications.

Rensin shared his views on various mobile technologies with GCN technology editor Brad Grimes.


GCN: A self-destructing Palm? Would love to have been a fly on that wall.

RENSIN: I told them, 'If you don't agree there, that minute, that this is the ultimate solution to the problem, not only can you cancel my contract, I'll refund every dollar that you've paid us so far.'

We went into the Pentagon with live data, had them lock it, unlock it, pass it around, hold it in their hand, and then I said, 'OK, now I want you to put in the wrong password.' 'Now what?' 'Wrong password.' 'Now what?' 'Wrong password.' 'Now what?' 'Now I think I'd put it down.'
He drops it onto the table because it's burning his hand, and sure enough, you hear crackle, crackle, crackle, and little curls of smoke start to come out from behind the screen. ... The general standing in back of the conference table is slowly leaning in, gazing over. And as the thing slowly melts in on itself like an overcooked Shrinky-Dink, he looks at me and says, 'Goddamnit, son, that is outstanding.'

GCN: So the Pentagon bought it?

RENSIN: About six months later, I get a box from the Pentagon. It's a hunk of plastic with a little note that says, 'We were on a mission at night in Bosnia. We came under fire and had to abandon a couple Humvees. We went back the next day to see what we could salvage, and we found this hunk of plastic on the ground. Somebody lost a finger. Thanks.'

The federal rep for Palm told me that in the three months following the demonstration, he made his year's quota of Palm sales into the Pentagon. Not [all of them] because they were going into the field, but because everyone was running around doing the demos, which of course you can only do once.

GCN: When you look at today's mobile and wireless government projects, what are your impressions?

RENSIN: We have a number of rules we live by. One of them is that long projects with big dollars are certain to die. And it makes perfect sense. The government has the Integrated Wireless Network. It'll probably be $10 to $20 billion over 10 years. That's going to fail, and it's easy to understand why. The point of that project is to design a wireless network for the next 10 years that the government can use for whatever its needs happen to be. I have some idea what wireless technology may look like 18, maybe 24 months from now. Which means somewhere around year six of this project, someone is going to figure out that it's totally inadequate for what they needed and they'll have to get more money.

A big project is really an amalgamation of lots of little projects. So in a 10-year project, there are probably 100 little projects that need to happen. Let's say you've got a prime who's really good at what they do. The odds of them getting any one of those little projects perfectly right the first time [are] 90 percent, which are staggeringly good odds. So the odds of getting the whole thing right are 90 percent to the one-hundredth. That's a lot of zeroes to the right of the decimal point. [Note: Reality Mobile was on a team bidding on I-WIN. Rensin said when the firm realized the nature of the project, it backed out because it felt the project 'was going to be a disaster.']

GCN: So what's the alternative to big projects like I-WIN?

RENSIN: When we get to a customer and he's talking about issuing an RFP, we usually tell him to stop; don't do it; this is a mistake. Separate your stuff into nine-, 12-, 15-month chunks. Make them discrete projects. Make the primes have to rebid at every cycle. Hold their performance in the previous cycle as a measure. Give yourself a bunch of fail-safes. That's the way to do procurement, but it requires something government is woefully bad at'oversight. Let's be honest: If I'm in some joint program office and I do a 10-year procurement, the odds that I'm going to be there six years from now, when everyone knows it's failed, are zero.

GCN: So what does a successful government wireless project look like?

RENSIN: Where we're seeing success is when an agency person gets a little money for a prototype or a field demonstration and deploys it to a few key execs in his agency, and they like it and they decide to roll it out. A prototype by definition is small, there's not much money associated with it, there's room to fix it if it's going awry. What you wind up getting a lot of the time is a prototype that's really ready for prime time. Then it's just a matter of deployment and scale.

GCN: Are agencies' wireless needs evolving?

RENSIN: Wireless always starts with simple data access. It's the first thing everybody wants'e-mail. For the last three years, the big trend in government has been buying [RIM] BlackBerry devices. But guess what? Government isn't buying RIMs as much anymore. Lots of agencies are moving away from RIM, not because they don't do e-mail well'they do it very well'but they don't do anything else particularly well. The FBI just bought thousands of Treo 650s for their field agents because they recognize they're going to want to do more than what a RIM will let them do, like surveillance.

GCN: What about municipal WiFi networks? What are their prospects?

RENSIN: Here's a dirty little secret: All these cities talking about doing municipal WiFi, they're not doing that as public works projects so everyone can get Internet access. Almost everyone in a big city can get DSL. They're doing it because they've been sold on the idea that to get surveillance to their cops, they need that kind of bandwidth.

The Philadelphia WiFi network is a boondoggle. It's a premise for first responders and cops to have access, but the truth is they don't need it. The devices that run on those networks are not low profile; they're high profile. That's OK for the guy wearing a black jacket that says security in yellow letters, but not so much for the guy who's supposed to be mingling with the crowd. You want something more like a cell phone ... running over a commercial network. WiFi networks are too expensive, they don't cover a wide area, and WiFi radios are nasty on batteries. ... It's not that WiFi is good or bad, it's just not practical.

GCN: Does WiFi have much of a future?

RENSIN: It'll never die. You'll see a lot of 802.11 on campuses. It's a pretty inexpensive way not to have to lay cable. You have bleed problems you have to worry about, but there are technologies to address that. You'll still see people network fixed-size, known perimeters'ports, cargo handling areas'with WiFi. And a few municipalities may try to do municipal WiFi, but I predict right now that every one of those will fail.

GCN: Do you have any opinions on RFID?

RENSIN: Oh gosh, don't get me started. That's a perfect example of when you're a hammer and everything else is a nail. RFID is a great technology, and it works incredibly well in certain defined circumstances. Which, of course, means people are trying to use it for things it wasn't designed for. Like it doesn't go through liquid, so that equipment in the battlefield you wanted to do a quick inventory sweep of? Suddenly you can't because it's raining. ... A lot of people are going to learn the hard way how many misreads they get, how they're not going to be able to reconcile data on the back end. RFID has to be as reliable as a bar code, or no one is going to buy it.

There are circumstances, such as security access control'RFID is fabulous for access control'where RFID is excellent. But like anything, once it gets a little traction in the little box where it works well, everyone tries to hammer it into another hole.

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