Take a sneak peek at the mobile enterprise of the future

How mobile computing will operate when it becomes an everyday workplace tool

I remember the day I knew the world was changing, when I realized once and for all that those little portable cell phones and personal digital assistants were slowly becoming enterprise clients in their own right and the days of the PC were numbered.

More than 10 years ago, when I was filling in for the military reporter at Government Computer News, I interviewed the officer in charge of IT aboard a destroyer. I asked him what his biggest headache was in terms of keeping the ship’s network secure. His answer surprised me, but he said it was something every captain thought about during his command.

Right after World War II, the Navy’s biggest concern about granting sailors shore leave in exotic ports of call was that they might bring tropical diseases back to the ship, which could cause an epidemic and lower combat efficiency. Ten years ago, the Navy officer told me the bigger concern at that time was all the strange and exotic programs the sailors might bring back on their PDAs, which could affect the network and even render the ship unusable.

That interview took place when portable devices were just beginning to add features such as network ports, and wireless networks were in their infancy. Now the processing power of portable devices often rivals that of low-end desktop PCs. And getting onto a network is as easy as switching on a connection to one of the nearly ubiquitous wireless links.

As portable devices gain capabilities that make them full-fledged network clients, government employees are naturally starting to use them that way for accessing e-mail, work files and purpose-built mobile applications.

Here are some highlights of products we’ve reviewed recently at GCN that illustrate key features for tightening the connection between mobile devices and traditional enterprise IT. They promise to enable people to work more effectively and securely wherever their jobs might take them. These products do not tell the full story, but they do indicate the direction in which we are headed.

Keyboard and mouse not required

There are at least 36 models of Anroid-based smart phones on the market, with more landing in stores every day. Motorola’s Droid X is special because it was one of the first and most successful, partly because it added a bit of extra screen space to make room for a working virtual keyboard.

A decent keyboard might seem like a small thing, but no enterprise device can be successful without one. Workers will need to enter data at some point, and we all understand how to use a keyboard. Making them easy to use removes another layer of difficulty for portable devices that are trying to become enterprise clients.

The Droid X has one of the best virtual keyboards we’ve used. Besides the fact that the 3-inch-by-4.5-inch screen provides more surface area and thus bigger keys, you can set up the Droid X to provide feedback in the form of audible clicks and even vibrations when you tap the keys.

Have network, will travel

Not everyone works in a comfortable office with lots of network connectivity or in a city dense with wireless hot spots. Some people have to use their cell phones to get onto a network, and the Wilson Sleek is an example of a product designed to help government employees whose home is out on the range.

The in-car cellular signal booster by Wilson Electronics can reduce the number of dropped calls and extend the usable range of a phone for voice and data transfers. In our testing, it improved voice quality and the rates of data transfer with most smart phones.

That a product like this exists is proof that everyone needs to connect to a network, even if your office is the driver’s seat of a government truck. For federal clients, the price of the unit is only $100, which could make the Sleek useful as a bulk purchase for agencies that have a large number of employees who travel independently. It can help extend an agency’s network out into the field — literally, in some cases.

The poster child for portable networks

Nothing has excited the market for portable enterprise devices more than the Apple iPad. This powerful tablet PC measures 9.56 inches by 7.47 inches by 0.5 inches, and it weighs only 1.5 pounds. That makes the device almost a perfect balance between portability and usability. And the 9.7-inch LED backlit touch-screen display has a 1,024 x 768 resolution and 132 pixels per inch, making its display quality better than most desktop monitors'.

For the enterprise workplace, Cisco Systems recently released an iPad version of its WebEx online conferencing application, and Citrix Systems followed with its GoToMeeting service. Now conferences can be run from a presenter’s iPad. You could even have all the meeting participants using iPads, without a single desktop PC in sight.

In our testing, the iPad’s battery lasted for nine hours of continuous use, far outlasting many laptop PCs on the market. So not only is the iPad extending the network, it’s making that wireless connection last a lot longer so more work can get done.

Shields up!

They say you can tell more about a man by who his enemies are than by his friends. For portable devices, the enemies are virus and spyware writers. As the enterprise has become more portable, those devices have become a target for spies and hackers. If someone can compromise your mobile device, he or she can get access to your entire network. And any virus on your portable computer can get transferred right into your network’s heart.

We’ve looked at several antivirus programs in the past year designed specifically for the mobile enterprise. AVG’s DroidSecurity is aimed at protecting Android devices from malicious code, something that is particularly dangerous because of the open-source nature of the operating system. That cool screen saver someone made for your Droid might be a Trojan horse in disguise looking for your network password.

There are even free programs, such as Lookout Mobile Security. As a bonus, the advanced version of the software can wipe your portable device remotely if it’s ever lost or stolen. And that is likely a must-have feature for any device that regularly connects to a government network.

Reporting for duty

If there were ever to be a device that tests the government’s interest in becoming more of a mobile enterprise, it’s the Casio G’zOne Brigade. On the surface, the Brigade looks like a normal cell phone, albeit with a large clock display. But crack that phone open, and you’ll find a large internal screen and full QWERTY keyboard. You can surf the Web on a 3G network — and we didn’t have any trouble getting a good signal during our testing in the Washington, D.C. area. The device even has push-to-talk capabilities when used on the Verizon network.

But the coolest thing about the G’zOne Brigade is that it’s fully rugged to the tough military specifications defined in the Mil-Std 810G document that the GCN Lab uses as a guideline for testing such devices. In our lab, the Brigade survived more than 38 falls from as high as 4 feet, landing on 2 inches of plywood sitting on concrete. It didn’t even get scratched.

Even more impressive, the Brigade can go completely underwater, as deep as 30 feet, for as long as 10 minutes. And it can indefinitely resist the blowing dust of the worst sandstorms. That earns it a very high Ingress Protection rating of 67, something few devices ever achieve. We’ve even had a few devices die during that type of testing, but the Brigade just kept on fighting.

Not everyone needs a portable network device that can operate under such harsh conditions, but the people who do probably work for the government. The Brigade can fill that need and extend the network where others fear to tread.

John Breeden II has directed the Government Computer News testing laboratory and reviewed products and services aimed at the federal government for more than 12 years. He has held, tossed, shot, watched, kicked, run over, electrocuted, played with, burned, blown up, taken into the desert, yelled at, dived with or raced every type of technology that exists today. You can reach him at jbreeden@1105govinfo.com.

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