Technology: Subsidized mobile devices and other hot concepts in 2012

Mobile computing pilot programs involving Apple iPads and other tablet PCs and smart phones have been a dime a dozen around government. Momentum for all things mobile has been undeniable, but in November 2011, President Barack Obama issued an executive order calling on agencies to limit spending on unnecessary IT devices, citing tablets and smart phones in particular.

However, rather than squelching interest in mobile technology, some observers say Obama’s order might actually help advance those plans as officials re-evaluate their existing computing device strategies for employees and confirm the benefits of mobility. It could also hasten the adoption of a workplace mobile device management approach that is growing in the private sector. It involves a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) plan and is often coupled with giving employees allowances to buy their own devices for shared work and personal use.

“The order is going to prompt agencies not already doing so to do a strategic review of their workers, their needs and security requirements, so that they can create a mobile device policy around that,” said Adelaide O'Brien, a research director at IDC Government Insights.

After such an evaluation, some agencies will find, as many private-sector firms have, that a BYOD policy can be one of their tools for reducing IT acquisition and management costs while letting employees use the tools they prefer, which helps them be more productive and stay current with new technology, O’Brien said.

“Agencies are very open to this idea,” she added.

They are hardly alone. IDC predicts that in three years 55 percent of all mobile devices used in workplaces worldwide and across all industries will be personally owned — or what IDC calls employee-liable devices. However, O’Brien expects the government to lag somewhat because of security and related concerns.

The growth of BYOD is also driven by a recognition that enterprise IT’s traditional purchase-and-control-everything approach is ill-suited to mobile technology.

“With the variety of [mobile] devices and cost points and the pace at which the technology is moving, it doesn’t make sense [for enterprises] to try and manage that,” said Gene Zapfel, a managing partner at Unisys Federal Systems. “You also need to think about [giving employees] allowances [to buy mobile devices]. It’s a lot cheaper and cleaner than managing a supply chain.”

The allowance idea got its first high-profile plug in February 2011 when then-Federal CIO Vivek Kundra suggested that agencies think about giving employees a $2,000 allowance to buy a mobile device and network plan for work. Roger Baker, CIO at the Veterans Affairs Department, said at an industry event in May 2011 that he expects the government to move to that stipend model within two years.

Numerous agencies are already laying the groundwork. For example, the National Nuclear Security Administration is building a secure mobile wireless infrastructure and has been allowing a test group of employees to access some agency resources using their personal smart phones, said J. Travis Howerton, NNSA's chief technology officer.

The agency’s long-term plan is to allow some employees to use approved personal devices in exchange for turning in their agency-issued devices, such as BlackBerrys. “Over time, I would like to see BlackBerrys go to zero,” Howerton said. NNSA is also planning to provide allowances for mobile devices to selected employees who have a documented business need for that capability.

Most agencies will need to deploy some new capabilities to enable those programs, such as ways to partition devices with separate spaces for work and personal use and the ability to remotely wipe data from a lost or stolen device. They will also need policies that clearly spell out employees' responsibilities, typically codified in acceptable-use agreements.

Agile software development

Federal agencies are often known for taking a Missourian “show me” stance when it comes to embracing new ideas. Those waiting to see if agile development can replace the government’s traditional, plodding style of custom software development won’t have any excuses for avoiding agile after this year.

The number of agencies trying agile development, in which programmers collaborate frequently with end users and develop functionality incrementally to get working software out the door more quickly, is taking off.

For example, the Office of Personnel Management was emboldened by its success with a trio of agile-based projects last year and now has at least eight new agile projects started or planned. Elsewhere, the Homeland Security Department, U.S. Postal Service, VA and numerous Defense Department agencies have agile projects under way.

Nevertheless, agile remains a promising but challenging opportunity. Achieving all the benefits it has to offer will involve a major mind-set change among all the stakeholders in the acquisition and development process.

Cloud-based e-mail

Given the reservations that many executives still have about cloud computing, it’s hard to believe that one of the first cloud services that many agencies will adopt is also one of the highest profile: enterprise e-mail.

By the end of 2012, about 2 million federal employees will start their workdays by retrieving e-mail messages from a cloud-based system, which is astounding given that practically none were doing so only two years ago. And that’s just counting the agencies that have gone public with their cloud e-mail plans.

As for those lingering cloud concerns: Get over it, say agency executives who are leading the changeover. Officials at the General Services Administration, the Army, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say cloud-based e-mail services will cost them half or less of what they would pay for in-house messaging systems, while also meeting government security requirements.

Besides saving money, the more standard and accessible cloud-based systems also provide a better platform for building new collaboration applications.

HTML5 for mobile apps

No matter how small, fast or cool a smart phone or tablet PC might be, what many people like most about them are the applications that run on the devices and are available from places such as Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Market. The handy, dynamic little apps for work and fun are typically much easier to use than the static websites that users access from a mobile device’s browser. Plus, many of the native apps work even when devices don’t have a network connection.

Unfortunately, until recently, agencies that wanted to create native mobile apps had to develop separate versions for each of the mobile operating systems if they wanted to reach the widest audience. But now agencies can use the newest version of HTML, called HTML5, to create standard Web apps that have many of the same great features as the native mobile phone apps.

Numerous agencies, including the Transportation Security Administration and the Labor Department, are hopping on the HTML5 bandwagon, but they recognize that the new standard is not a silver bullet. Many elements of HTML5 are quite stable, but some spotty areas remain, at least for the short term.

Desktop virtualization

Only a couple of years ago, virtual desktop technology was an interesting newcomer in search of a good, mass-appeal business case to justify its not insignificant price tag. It will find that irrefutable return-on-investment rationale in 2012 in the form of all the smart phones and tablet PCs that are invading government workplaces.

Virtual desktop infrastructure solutions were designed to eliminate the management and security liabilities posed by fleets of traditional desktop PCs that store and run most of their own software. With VDI, a centrally managed server hosts the client software and data, and makes it available across a network to end-user client computers as needed.

Smart phones and tablet PCs are becoming the ultimate thin client. In conjunction with other solutions for ensuring security and partitioning workloads, VDI could let agencies dole out virtual desktops to a wide range of devices, from desktop PCs and thin clients to smart phones and tablet PCs.

Read about management trends in 2012 or more forecasts for government IT.

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