Will the BlackBerry PlayBook score with feds?

Federal IT managers ponder impact of new generation of tablet computers

For most government agencies, the top-down approach to planning and choosing technologies for the workforce is a thing of the past. Gone are the days when your IT manager dropped a piece of equipment on your desk and told you exactly what you could or could not do with it. These days, it’s often the other way around.

Federal employees are buying their own devices, carrying them into agency IT departments and saying, “Make this work.” The power of the devices and consumerization of technology are changing the way federal workers interact with their agencies — and with one another —  whether agency CIOs like it or not.

Nevertheless, it’s a shift that developers and government technology managers are tracking closely. “I think we need to watch out for novel uses of these platforms and ways to take advantage of them through new workflows and new ways of doing business,” said NASA Chief Technology Officer Chris Kemp, who envisions the tablet as a critical agency system for the future.

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The availability of smart phones in the past couple of years got the attention of agency IT managers, and the arrival of the latest generation of tablet computers has many of them thinking about how the government might best exploit the technology.

“When a tablet is just another way to check e-mail, that is not that interesting,” Kemp said. “When a tablet enables a federal agency to do business differently, that gets very interesting.”

Federal agencies have been waiting with special interest for the latest device expected to debut in the federal market this spring: the BlackBerry PlayBook from Research in Motion.

For years, the RIM’s BlackBerry smart phone has set a standard for enterprise mobility in government for its security features and ability to sync with enterprise applications, such as Microsoft Exchange. Given its federal penetration, industry watchers are intrigued by how agencies will use the powerful PlayBook and, in turn, whether it will reshape how agencies do business.

“Our task as a vendor has been to understand this whole dual-persona nature that the devices have to have,” said David Heit, director of product strategy at RIM. “There’s a personal element to them where the individual decides their own level of security.”

Tabula rasa

As a source of raw computing, the tablet inhabits a kind of netherworld, somewhere between the smart phone and the laptop. In the daily operations of a federal agency, its path toward adoption is hard to predict.

The versatile PlayBook could be used to play video, serve as an e-reader, help create presentations or, if necessary, do all at once. That’s a significant step up compared to the feature set of even new smart-phone devices.

And that’s just a starting point. The next generation of tablets will come with dual-core ARM-based processors that support CPU-intensive activities that previously have been seen only in the world of science fiction.

In one example, NASA is building a library of the future, designed to be virtualized on a tablet. Kemp said he sees many ways that the agency could use tablets to become more mobile and efficient. They might also help redefine how NASA serves information to consumers inside and outside the agency.

“Our vision is that libraries used to be physical places where people checked out books," Kemp said. "I think what they are turning into are tablets where [a patron] would have access to expensive technical journals that NASA has a set of finite subscriptions to or other organized media that were relevant to particular disciplines within the agency.”

RIM's Heit added that "what a tablet can do is not so much being a book reader for me in the commercial sense but give me access to the government library so that I can actually take a look at documents in a way that I couldn’t do before really.”

NASA’s library of the future is in development, and the agency expects to finish it by summer, with full availability to users by fall.

Cloud via tablet

Kemp and others say they envision tablets as a primary interface for how a mobile workforce would access public information in the future. But supporting that plan requires the transition of government systems to cloud computing, a trend just picking up steam in federal, state and local government.

“When you are carrying around a tablet, you are carrying a gateway to the cloud,” Kemp said. “I think that in order for any federal agency to really fully take advantage of tablets, you need to be in the cloud, and you need to move your data and your applications into the cloud because these devices are ubiquitously available to employees wherever they are.”

That is easier said than done. Deloitte predicts that between 10 million and 15 million tablets will be brought into the U.S. business enterprise, including federal government offices, this year. But that does not mean access to the cloud overnight.

“You have hundreds of millions of dollars capitalized on your balance sheet for e-mail servers, all of your enterprise software, document retention and all the rest of it,” said Eric Openshaw, vice chairman of the technology sector at Deloitte. “You don’t throw that out on Tuesday because you can get a better rate per transaction [or] cost per drink in the cloud.”

Even so, the economic momentum toward a tablet-cloud architectures appears unstoppable. “The federal government is trying to find ways to save money, so if a huge percentage of our workforce can get the job done on a device that is one-fourth the cost, I would be very excited about that," Kemp said. "That is money that taxpayers can spend elsewhere.”

Market traction

Although U.S. businesses might buy 10 million to 15 million tablet computers this year, the number of tablets that actually pop up in the enterprise will likely be much higher as people bring in their own devices.

For its part, RIM hopes it can gain market share when some portion of the 50 million BlackBerry smart-phone users decide to move up or add a PlayBook to their pro toolbox. Although the federal government represents a minor share of this universe, the BlackBerry is ubiquitous in the agency sphere and inside the Beltway.

When that happens, new rules and regulations might be necessary to provide structure for the use of the high-performance devices in government. “You are seeing a lot of reflection about [smart-phone and tablet] policy in government right now,” said Heit, who predicted a “further segmentation of user classes and what they have access to on mobile devices.”

“How are we going to handle these things?” he asked. “What are the policies being put in place? What are the accepted mechanism to use these?"

For instance, the dual-persona characteristics of tablets make security a sticky issue. How does a device separate personal-use features from enterprise-use features? What about applications that can span those two worlds, such as a personal calendar? What about how users connect? Are encryption and isolation of enterprise data enough?

When introducing new devices, agencies must balance security and performance, NASA’s Kemp said.

“What NASA will try to do is to apply an appropriate level of security to the devices so people are able to use them to be productive — I think that is really the key,” Kemp said. “If we overdo it, then people will essentially not make the transition from a laptop to a tablet, and that could be not the most efficient thing for the agency to encourage.”

Tablet security is a serious concern. In June 2010, a hacker downloaded personal information from 120,000 iPads connected to the AT&T 3G network. Other exploits have been successful on smart phones that conform to the Global System for Mobile Communications wireless standard, which AT&T uses. At a recent Black Hat security conference, a researcher demonstrated the vulnerability of an Apple iPhone by running a live hack on the device.

What is clear is that adoption of tablets by federal employees — whether they are iPads, PlayBooks or Android-based devices — will drive decision-makers to learn how to manage the devices. It might also spur new ways of doing business in the federal sector.

“I think that is a new paradigm for a lot of federal agencies,” Kemp said. “The cloud is a necessary first step to realizing the potential of tablets and other mobile devices.”

“Our position is rather than say no, we say, ‘Why not?'," said Jerry Williams, the Housing and Urban Development Department's CIO. "What are the real concerns? I think too often there is a tendency to be extremely conservative to new technologies.”


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