Interior tests iPads as interest in tablets grows

U.S. Geological Survery rolls out 1,000 devices as agencies begin experimenting with tablet platform

The Interior Department is rolling out small batches of iPad tablets to its departments as an experiment in trying to improve employee efficiency and control costs.

According to a report from NextGov, the U.S. Geological Survey has about 1,000 iPads being used by agents in the field, Interior’s other nine bureaus and five major offices are deciding whether to bring in tablet devices.

“We've done a limited pilot [program] here at the Office of the Secretary,” Andrew Jackson, deputy assistant secretary for technology, information and business service at the Interior, told NextGov.

The Bureau of Land Management has put in a requisition for iPads, and the Office of the Secretary is considering a more extensive rollout of the device after issuing it to some employees around Labor Day 2010, according to the report.

Other agencies, following the lead of private enterprise, have also gotten into the iPad and tablet market. Employees at the Housing and Urban Development Department use iPads, and NASA rolled out a 1,000-device pilot program shortly after the product’s initial launch in April 2010.

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“Certainly, it is all about mobility and the bigger enterprise players we have seen so far seem to be around health care, utilities and data collections seems to be an area of real interest,” Eric Openshaw, vice chairman of the technology sector at Deloitte, told GCN.

Jackson told NextGov that the agency is looking into the mapping capabilities of the iPad. The data collection aspect of tablets could be of use to Interior employees who may often need to input geolocation and other statistics from the field. Census workers would also benefit from the data collection aspect of tablets.

Use of Apple’s tablet device is not all about looking cool, either. NASA Chief Technology Officer Chris Kemp said that there could be a significant cost advantage to rolling out tablets as opposed to laptops. It seems Jackson agrees with him, telling NextGov that the $499 price point for a base level iPad is about one-third the price of a government-issued laptop.

Federal agencies have been dabbling into potential use of the devices, but so far no agency has taken a headlong jump into widespread integration. It would not be a surprise if Kemp took NASA in that direction, though, as the space agency is often on the leading edge of technology adoption. There are also use cases for an agency such as the Internal Revenue Service that could deploy tablets to its legion of auditors for data collection. Just as Interior is testing cost and worker efficiency, there are a variety of ways tablets could be integrated into the IT road maps of various agencies.

That hasn't happened so far. Part of the reason that agencies have not yet jumped fully toward the tablet is precisely because of the iPad – so far, it is the only major player in the game.

“They have a lot of market share in the short run," Openshaw said. "I know there is a whole new wave of tablets emerging on the scene. I think what you are going to end up seeing is the pace held back a little bit by CIOs trying to figure out ‘How many different platforms can I support?’ And ‘Where are my enterprise applications that are suited to be supported on these devices?’ What kind of access points?”

There is also a question of the utility of iPads. Is Interior going to have to write its own applications to test the devices’ mapping functions? Are there developers out there working with agencies to create very specific applications? NextGov notes that Accela debuted an iPad application in the last week of January that “pulls up charts depicting the status of agency operations, such as permit applications, inspections and service requests.”

“We haven’t figured out exactly where the big enterprise software suppliers, the SAP and Oracles of the world, will come out with specialized capabilities at the tablet level,” Openshaw said. “We know that it is going to happen. But that is really what is holding this back is all of those things, not the absolute desire for it.”

So far, the iPad is dominant in market and mind share, so it is possible that agencies are taking a wait-and-see approach. The iPad2 is expected to arrive in the second quarter, while the BlackBerry PlayBook will ship by the end of the first quarter. On Feb. 2, Google’s Android team held a press conference to show off Honeycomb, or Android 3.0, that will be optimized for tablets. The first tablets to utilize Honeycomb are the Motorola Xoom and LG G-Slate, scheduled for March releases.

The software developer kit of Honeycomb highlights advancements for enterprise. According to the SDK, ”developers of device administration applications can support new types of policies, including policies for encrypted storage, password expiration, password history and password complex characters required.”

That could be a big boost for federal IT offices but Federal Information Processing Standards certification 140-2 are still nonexistent for Android devices, let alone Honeycomb, which has hardly seen the light of day outside of the Googleplex in Palo Alto, Calif.

About the Author

Dan Rowinski is a staff reporter covering communications technologies.


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