Is there a place for smart phones on the battlefield? Readers fire back.

Readers debate the merits of iPhones or any other smart phones in comabt, and open-source app development

Is there a place for smart phones on the battlefield? And if so, what kind of phone should it be?

The Pentagon certainly is behind the idea, having recently held the Army Apps challenge, in which teams competed to develop applications for iPhone, Android and other platforms. And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing an app store in the mold of Apple’s software outlet.

But a few readers, commenting on our story that the iPhone’s proprietary software could take it out of the running, have their doubts. And those who see advantages in using smart phones disagree about the best possible platform. Some support an open-source move, while other think the idea could be shortsighted. (There has been no official word from the military on the matter.)

Original story:

Military likely to shun iPhone

“I struggle to find the applicability of a consumer smart phone (hardware) to a ‘frontline’ environment. What is missing here is the cellular infrastructure to support the devices,” wrote one reader. “Commercial networks struggle to provide adequate bandwidth to the consumer market place back home; the needs to provide the bandwidth in a combat zone will be an immense struggle. Additionally, there will be security concerns for that network. The better move would be to port the capabilities to a device that communicates through the secure architecture in place (and future enhancements) that also takes advantage of whatever OS environment and application development community that best suits the needs of the military.”

The Army’s plan for smart phones includes having them operate via mobile networks set up by Joint Tactical Radio System software radios, according to DOD Buzz.

Assuming the Defense Department can establish the mobile networks, readers see possibilities for the idea, as long as the smart phones themselves are tough enough.

“If Panasonic can produce a rugged laptop to withstand the rigors of the field environment, surely one of these cell phone makers can produce a system that can match the laptop,” wrote another reader. “Open source is THE only way to go, it will allow or engineers the flexibility to change apps as the situation dictates.”

“It is likely you will see multiple mobile devices developed and deployed depending on what is needed so really you have a lot of winners,” suggested James Alcasid of Washington, D.C. “I do think that acceptance and compatibility to open formats will determine how successful a mobile device platform will be in Army or otherwise.”

Of course, the use of smart phones on the battlefield, by design, goes against the grain of some current policies. “I find this article strange,” wrote one commenter. “In my last decade of service, I've been issued all sorts of smart phones: Sprint, Cingular. Etc., and the comm squadron disables every function on them for security. I've never had a functional camera, Bluetooth link, Web or GPS access or the ability to load new applications or fix bad codecs, etc. Just a phone and e-mail (no text messaging) with attachments cut out. If the regs don't change (and they won't) why have a competition to find the best phone to buy and then shut all functions off?”

Readers did have opinions on the potential candidates for battlefield smart phones, ranging from those who support the apparent move toward the open-source Android operating system to those who suggested that shunning the iPhone could be a case of being penny-wise but pound-foolish.

Hefti of Dover, Del., wrote: “I would anticipate that BlackBerry be dropped as an option because of the OS and being fragile. In 20 months, I am on my fifth one. I work in the utility industry, and they can’t even hold up in our environment. How can they expect them to work for fighting men and women?”

The iPhone’s suitability also was an issue. “Apple's lack of Flash support, weak file maintenance, and missing SD memory expansion are just a few of the things that frustrate me about their platform,” wrote Drew. “Nokia with the Symbian OS is a better option for expansion and meeting hard field requirements. Apple is only recycling its tech from one rev to the next now; no more innovation.”

However, another reader disagreed. “Drew, Apple's iOS provides *strong* file maintenance. It is, after all, based on a certified Unix implementation (Mac OS X). On the other hand, it doesn't expose file operations and control to the user. In most cases, that's a good thing -- do we really want soldiers acting as file janitors? Also, the use of SD cards would be very problematic in the field. The storage media is very small and therefore susceptible to loss and the use of such media requires an access slot in the device. This provides one more point of failure especially due to dirt or liquid infiltration. It's just not a good idea in a device destined for field use. By the way, of what use would Adobe's Flash be in a military setting?”

A reader named Dan took issue with the idea that the Android operating system was, by virtue of being open source, automatically more useful for app development.

“Rapid design and deployment requires a mature and robust development environment,” Dan wrote in a long comment. “Compared to Apple's Xcode development environment, Android simply isn't there yet. In addition, the deployment tools and processes for Android are relatively weak and disorganized. You can see the results of all these factors in the app counts: 225,000 for Apple's iOS vs. 50,000 for Google's Android.

“Also, the ‘open’ nature of Android is a two-edged sword: The dangerous part of openness is that makes the OS highly susceptible to developers with malicious intent finding those bugs quicker than if the OS was closed like the iPhone or BlackBerry OS.”

But there also is the matter of how much applications cost. A Boeing official told DOD Buzz that military apps for the iPhone would cost about $200 each. That’s a lot higher than commericial iPhone apps cost, presumably because the development costs would be defrayed among fewer users.

Several readers seemed to think that $200 was the development cost for an application, a notion others quickly put to rest. “I develop iPhone and Android apps, and there is no way I could see any kind of app (except perhaps a stupid Twitter thing) being developed for $200,” wrote Vincent Youmans in Miami.

At least one reader mentioned the importance of hardware. “Since Apple is the leader in hardware innovation, if the military shuns it, they'll likely be unable to do the things they could have done with an iPhone,” wrote Bobby. “Not all things can be accomplished with software alone, and the military will be limited as to what Droid physically is capable of doing. There is a limit to what the phone that Droid is running on does!”

Mark Arnold in Maryland, however, contended that the biggest issue was open source vs. proprietary software. “I'll just say this ... Good. It seems that we finally have come to grips with the fact that open source is a good thing,” he wrote. “Maybe with enough pressure Apple will start to play ball with opening up their technology.”



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