Are these the Droids you're looking for?

Open source will let feds conquer the mobile universe

This week the GCN Lab got a look at what might become the hottest gadget for the holiday season: the Verizon Wireless Droid, a Motorola phone that is pretty darn cool. In fact, I have to resist my natural urge to look at the product with rose-colored glasses and declare it amazing based on its surface features. Rest assured that the Droid is getting a full testing workout.

But more than any other phone in recent memory, the Droid will matter to feds. Let me explain why. If you want to boil the Droid down into a simple sentence to explain it to someone, then describing it as an iPhone without all of Apple’s restrictions would be pretty darn close and get your point across in any case.

The reason the iPhone is so popular is because of the ease of use of the touch-screen design, and the millions of mobile applications that help people do their jobs better. I could name 20 mobile apps that would be useful to various feds, including security tracking, location services and specialized search engines. The problem with the iPhone is that it’s all proprietary within the Apple network, so many of those applications don’t exist. Every single application you can get for the iPhone (not including jailbreak phones that have — possibly illegally — split off from the Apple mothership) is either created by Apple or approved by them. And that stymies competition and variety, which for a somewhat closed market like the federal government, means fewer apps written (and sold) directly for them.

In fact, if Apple had approved the Google Voice application for their iPhone network, something users really wanted but Apple was afraid to give them, then Google might not have purchased the Android OS that makes the Droid phone possible. Maybe that will teach Apple a thing or two, especially when the company starts to feel the bite from a new player in what has been its almost exclusive market.

In fact, all of the applications that run on the Droid are created using the open-source Android OS. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay for them, though many are free, but it does mean that there are no censorship restrictions on what you can and can’t use, which basically means in terms of the iPhone what is or isn’t good for Apple and their bottom line. The Droid hit the ground running too, with thousands of apps ready to go at launch. Someone could create a job for themselves just going through it all and separating out the tools that would help feds, and others, do their jobs better.

It may not be all wine and roses for the Droid. A Google search just now turned up a pornography company that is specifically making apps for the Droid as the No. 1 returned search item, ahead of even the phone’s own Web site. But feds are extremely technically savvy and will likely begin creating apps to help them do their jobs better. In fact, a recent visit from Army Maj.Keith Parker, who showed us all the gizmos that go with Army Knowledge Online’s new Go Mobile Program, really opened my eyes in this area. According to Parker, soldiers who need or want an application to run on the new Go Mobile Program actually write the application themselves a lot of the time. Then others can use it too and the entire Army benefits.

With that as a model, what could go wrong? Imagine the entire federal government equipped with Droids, writing applications from the ground up that can actually help make government more efficient. Work in the courts and need an app to search trial records? Create it, or download an app that one of your coworkers has made. Work at the Commerce Department and want to know what goodies are being served in the cafeteria that day? Make a menu program that can find that info and display it on your phone. Do that and pretty soon everyone will be using it just as soon as they get hungry.

The possibilities are limitless. This could be one of those moments where the technology world really changes. What will the future look like for feds? Well, it’s really up to you now. I await your results.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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