Are cool gadgets a go for government?

The days of new government employees being issued a desktop computer and access to a handful of software applications appear to be numbered — but not before a good bit of work is done.

Responding to requests from employees, Veterans Affairs Department officials have announced plans to let employees use their personal smart phones and tablet PCs on VA networks by Oct. 1, subject to the IT department’s oversight and security requirements, reports Federal Computer Week’s Alice Lipowicz.

VA might be a step ahead of other agencies, but it is certainly not alone in its desire to make the popular consumer devices from Apple and other manufacturers fit for enterprise use. The first question for most agencies is how to do so securely.

Under VA’s plan, authorized employees will be able to use their handheld Apple devices to view but not download department data. Any government data stored on the devices will have to be encrypted. Also, employees will need to have their personal devices prescreened by VA's IT officials and perhaps even checked on a regular basis to ensure that compatibility and security requirements are met.

“We will have to be clear about enforcement,” VA CIO Roger Baker said. “We need flexibility on both sides.”

Baker also imagines a not-so-distant future in which VA employees are offered the choice of a laptop PC or handheld device for work.

Elsewhere, the National Institute of Standards and Technology announced last month that it’s conducting an agencywide pilot program to test ways its employees could use iPads and iPhones at work. NIST joins several other agencies that already have similar pilot programs under way.

However, making sure that handheld devices are compatible with agency networks and security policies is only half the consumer-device-meets-enterprise-computing story. A big part of what makes those devices so popular with consumers is the availability of thousands of easy-to-use software applications for work and pleasure from places like Apple’s App Store.

Government CIOs have shown little interest in letting agency employees indulge themselves at those online app buffets. They prefer a more controlled approach that allows employees to choose from prescreened, secure apps. The General Services Administration's Apps.gov is one step in that direction, but it recently got some serious competition: Apple has introduced an App Store Volume Purchase Program. It lets enterprise customers buy selected apps in bulk, manage distribution to employees and even commission the development of custom apps.

It could be the step that helps Apple finally break into the enterprise market, writes Jo Best at Silicon.com.

"It's good news for the enterprise, but it's better news for Apple," Best writes. "As consumers can testify, the Apple lock-in is a hard beast to escape. Once you've entered the Apple ecosystem, you're in, and it's a doozy getting out."

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

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