Why the iPad changes the rules

The U.S. Geological Survey reportedly has about 1,000 Apple iPad tablet computers on hand. The Army, NASA, State Department, Census Bureau and General Services Administration are among the many other agencies that have also acquired tablet PCs and are testing them for various field- and office-based work tasks.

It’s clear that government IT officials are taking the portable wireless devices seriously and figuring out how they might fit into their future enterprise computing plans


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Comparing tablet PCs


But even before official roles are assigned to them, plenty of tablet PCs are showing up at government offices — some as part of pilot tests and others as personal devices brought in by their enthusiastic owners. We talked to a few tablet-toting government executives to see what they like so much about their slick new devices. Here is what they said.

The jack-of-all-trades: Multitasking at work and play

Scott Williams, chief of the Telecommunications Office at the Census Bureau, has been using an Apple iPad that the agency bought as part of its pilot tests.

I’ve been using the iPad primarily for e-mail and Web browsing. It frees me up from the laptop and the BlackBerry.

In a meeting, you are more discreet with a [tablet’s screen-based] soft keyboard than you are with a hard keyboard and clacking away. I sit at my desk and I clack during conference calls, so I have to put my cell phone on mute. But with the soft keyboard, it’s not like that.

From an enterprise perspective, we’re looking at a thin client to replace our heavy desktop [PCs]. We’re looking at any device for any place, any time [access]. We see the iPad, or any of the pads, as one of those devices where you could access your desktop and the applications remotely.

We have all sorts of business uses we’re conceiving. We can use it for monitoring and managing systems if we want. We have a permanent force of more than 5,000 field reps. They currently have laptops that they run surveys on and capture data. We’re considering pads and other mobile devices for replacing those laptops.

The other thing I see from a business perspective is the ability to conduct a Skype session or FaceTime meeting. You can create an easy video teleconference.

We have been testing most of the tablets on the market, including the iPad. We are a BlackBerry shop, like most agencies, so we are looking at the BlackBerry PlayBook. We’ve got the Motorola Xooms in. We’re looking at those for Honeycomb [Google’s Android 3.0 tablet operating system]. We haven’t picked anything yet.

I just got back from a college trip with my kid, and I used [the iPad] for everything. Mapping is great. You set the course, and using GPS, you can watch yourself going down the road. You can also do that on a [smart] phone, but this is a nice size screen and I don’t have to wear glasses to see where I’m going. And then if I want to anticipate where I’m going to be next — if I’m in Nashville and I want to go to Memphis — I can stretch it out to see what [the route] looks like. The form factor is perfect for that.

The [stand-alone] GPS is a special-purpose device, [whereas] the iPad is a computer. You can start browsing, sending text and e-mails. You can do everything on it. I think that’s the huge value.

The communicator: No-compromise portable e-mail

Mary Davie, assistant commissioner at the Office of Integrated Technology Services at the General Services Administration, has been using her personal iPad at work as part of GSA’s experimentation with tablet applications.

My main use for work is to access e-mail, calendar, documents and presentations. Those folks with GSA-issued tablets are able to access network drives and files. My iPad lets me really respond to an e-mail, unlike my BlackBerry. I can download attachments from e-mail using my iPad and really see what it is, if it’s a PDF [file]. It also allows me to download my presentations and put my talking points into the notes of my speech. I downloaded a keynote presentation app for my tablet.

I would like to be able to access internal systems, such as [human resources] and financial management, and also provide customers access to business transaction systems, such as GSA Advantage and eBuy.

Our CIO, Casey Coleman, has been working on a pilot project that has GSA using at least three different types of tablets, such as the Xoom.

I use my iPad at home for e-books. I never thought I’d become an e-book reader.

I’m also able to download things really quickly, especially at an airport. My iPad syncs with my BlackBerry, so I can read on the airplane without pulling out my iPad.

The collaborator: Meet, listen, share

Andrew Weber, a legislative information systems manager at the Law Library of Congress, describes some of the uses he’s found for his personal iPad. He shared his insights as an individual, not as a Library of Congress employee.

My two primary work-related tasks are tweeting and taking notes on the iPad. My favorite Twitter app for the iPad is the official Twitter app. My favorite program for taking notes is Pages. I love being able to go to an event or conference and then quickly share my notes with others. I also use the browser, Safari, for checking and responding to work e-mail. I do a lot of Web-related work and occasionally show sites during a meeting on it.

My tablet is incredibly portable. It's easy to bring along almost anywhere, including slipping it into a meeting where a laptop might not be appropriate. It's also nice that it saves a step at airport security since it doesn't need to be removed from a bag.

Our IT department has a couple of iPads for use, in part, when our network is down and we are still open to the public. But there is no support for iPhones or iPads through our system. There isn't the possibility of synchronizing a calendar or mail with it either.

I use my tablet at home, too. I love the Kindle app for reading books and keeping my place across all devices. I also like streaming [movies] from the Netflix app. I have a few apps for news, such as the Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today and The Economist. Then there is the assortment of apps on there for my 2-year-old daughter, who loves reading books and learning about the alphabet on the iPad.

Some early official tablet apps

Now that agencies have had some time to play around with the Apple iPad and other tablet PCs, reports are popping up about some of the ways that government employees are putting the portable computers into official service. Here are a few examples.

  • Aviators in the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing are using iPads to load, store and view their navigation documents rather than carry paper copies in the cockpits of their helicopters and other aircraft, reports DOD Buzz.
  • Agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are watching surveillance video on iPads in the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, according to the Washington Post.
  • Managers at Salt Lake City’s building services department are using a custom iPad application from Accela to track inspections, field inspector schedules, and license and permit applications.
  • Clinicians at the Veterans Affairs Department medical center in Washington, D.C., are testing an iPad application developed by Agilex Technologies that gives them access to patients’ medical histories, including laboratory test results, medications, allergies, appointments and problem lists. It also integrates clinical calendars and secure messaging to streamline scheduling and information exchange.

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