The iPad goes to war

iPads and other 'consumer' tablets are becoming standard tools in the battlefield -- and may migrate to other high-stress work

It's not often you hear a defense contractor promoting "consumer" devices such as the iPad, but in the last few weeks, military manufacturer Harris Corporation has been pitching to journalists the iPad's utility in the battlefield. The iPad is used to to send video of what the drones see, present real-time tactical maps, and analyze that information to direct military engagements, as well as to act as a communications and command console.

Harris sells communications gear: portable 3G and Wi-Fi setups that let the military create battlefield "bubble" networks when and where needed. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan apparently winding down, I suspect its public marketing effort is meant to entice police and other first responders to consider using its gear in situations like the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, as well as the northern Japanese earthquake and tsunami a few months ago.

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Such "bubble" networks are not new, though it's clear that they've become much more important to today's military to keep troops, drones, reconnaissance systems, and the like all linked together for the increasingly technological, networked methods of warfare practiced by the U.S. military. What does seem to be new is the portability of such gear; it's designed to be set up by pretty much anyone, notes John Delay, chief architect of emerging business solutions, so it can be used more often and in more places.

But the iPad? That's new -- in the past, very expensive custom devices would have been created to handle the battlefield communications, view the reconnaissance images, and direct the drones. And they certainly didn't have the battery life or light weight of an iPad, which are both major advantages in the battlefield.

Of course, those custom devices cost tens of thousands of dollars each, whereas a top-of-the-line iPad 2 costs $830. The military can afford to stockpile lots of iPads at that price, replacing any damaged in the battlefield easily and making them available to many more troops. Plus, an increasing number of troops -- who tend to be younger and technologically adept -- are familiar with them and with smartphones, helping speed critical training.

Accelerating "consumer" technology adoption in "hardened" environments
The consumerization of IT affects the military just as much as it does other businesses. Certainly, PCs made the transition into the military, but iPad adoption -- a year after its release, it's a key part of ongoing warfare systems -- is remarkably fast. And there's no reason other tablets couldn't be used in the way the iPad is, Delay notes; it had a year's head start on its competitors, so companies like Harris took advantage of its existence. In fact, the U.S. Army is looking to adapt Android smartphones for soldiers' use.

One reason I believe the iPad found itself so quickly in tatical battlefield use is that Apple intentionally designed the tablet to work in a wide range of environments, short-circuiting the usual slower transition of consumer-grade technology into "hardened" environments like hospitals, police cars, factory floors, and battlefields. And the FAA recently certified iPads for use in airliner cockpits to replace paper manuals. Although Apple's public face is about the consumer, its army of engineers and designers have visited most large companies to get feedback on the iPad's design (hardware and software), and Apple has a unit dedicated to aiding government -- including military -- use of its products in Virginia.

Uncle Sam is looking at using app stores -- maybe businesses should, too
Beyond the iPad, the military is looking at another Apple-inspired trend that many businesses are hoping won't happen: the app store. Delay says that all branches of the armed services are looking at how to deploy app stores for use by their civilian and military personnel for iPads, Androids, and more.

My suspicion: The military sees a benefit to having a central, network-accessible location for application distribution to people anywhere there's an Internet connection. Perhaps businesses should start thinking about this benefit as well and reassess the model of the centralized system image.

This article, "The iPad goes to war," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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