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iPad 2: What can it really do for your agency?

This blog post was updated at 9:30 a.m. March 4 to add statistics on federal employees' academic degrees.

So, the iPad 2 is announced and it is about a week before it hits the shelves.

What do you think of this, my fickle federal friends?

In government adoption of tablets, iPads or otherwise, there are a variety of things to consider. What is the life cycle of the technology? What are the core functions that can make my employee more efficient at less cost? How often will I need to upgrade? Will Apple gives us a discount buying in bulk because, hey, we are the government and we are uber-cool and could throw an anti-monopoly case against you anytime we feel like it?

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For instance, in talking with a lot of different federal agencies about tablet adoption, one of the things I hear most is that it is cheaper option than buying a laptop or, especially, a desktop for employees. The general status quo in life-cycle replacement on normal laptops/desktops in the federal enterprise is between two to four years, sometimes longer. Think about that in the short term when it comes to tablets. Is an iPad going to be working, let alone technologically relevant, in three years? Apple comes out with a new iteration of its devices once a year (perhaps twice this year if you believe the rumor that an even newer version of the iPad is coming in the fall).

As a federal employee, there is no way that you will get a tablet upgrade every year. Doing so would blow the cost savings of running iPads over PCs out of the water.

Then there is the issue of efficiency. A tablet in the enterprise is justified if it can make an employee better, faster, smarter. In a way we are talking about a small army of Steve Austins, the Six Million Dollar Man. But the goal would be instead of building a $6 million employee, but to save $6 million by issuing cheaper and more useful technology to employees.

Even better, if iPads are approved at your agency, management would love to see employees purchase the devices (and subsequent upgrades) out of pocket and then have the IT department make it function in the enterprise. Really, for the foreseeable future, that is probably how tablets in agencies are going to play out.

The enterprise is still looking for that “killer app” -- the application that makes a piece of technology so useful that it is a must-have. In the consumer realm, Netflix is close to being the killer app for the iPad (and one of the reasons I am so very conflicted on whether or not to buy a Motorola Xoom since Android does not yet support Netflix).

 In the federal/enterprise sphere, that killer application does not yet exist. The throng of developers who create iPad apps have their eyes on the consumer prize. They want to create the next Angry Birds (a popular mobile game) or Pandora (a music streaming service). They are not all that interested in your data input needs or the ability to sync your enterprise calendar with your e-mail with your daily activity log in a seamless manner. The BlackBerry PlayBook does have this interest in mind, but that is a different story and a different piece of technology.

The killer app is not going to come from Rovio (the maker of Angry Birds). It is going to come from names that federals IT departments recognize – IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, Geico or SAIC or others. For instance, Cisco has its Cius tablet aimed at enterprise communication but does not have an app ecosystem like the commercial players. Mobile app construction is a little outside of the purview of these technology giants (well, not Microsoft but they are focused on Windows Phone 7 for the time being and have an ongoing tiff with Apple for some reason).

Killer enterprise apps will be centered on data and information discovery, data input, communications and collaboration. Of the 65,000 iPad-designed apps that Apple CEO Steve Jobs mentioned when unveiling the iPad 2, very few are dedicated to those very specific categories.

Don't get me wrong -- federal employees are finding ways to make the tablet useful. The Interior Department uses them in the field for data collection. NASA envisions using them for its “Library Of The Future” (data and information discovery). Hell, there have been iPad sightings on the Senate floor in the past year.

When it comes down to it, the iPad is not an enterprise device. More to the point, Apple really has no intention of going out of its way to make it an enterprise device. Yes, it will work with security concerns through its own efforts and in partnership with Good Technology and Juniper (among others), but security will soon be as necessary to mobile devices as it is for PCs so Apple cannot ignore it. They do not do it specifically for feds, it is just an added bonus to be able to penetrate that market.

The only reason that iPads are even in the enterprise discussion is because of their popularity and their potential. Employees are going to bring it to the office and want it to work. Agencies will do experiments with small deployments. Yet, until the killer app comes, it is just not a fit in the federal sphere.

The best indicator of the lack of enterprise thinking that goes into the iPad and its ecosystem development is something that Jobs said at the end of the iPad 2 announcement: “The iPad is the cross between technology and liberal arts.”

Let that sink in for a second.

Now, think about the IT guy at your agency. Then think about your boss. Outside of the ability to write (which is a specific skill but is still more or less included in liberal arts), what liberal arts skills are there that can be functions of an iPad are inherently useful to a federal employee? The boss approves giving you an iPad and the IT guy sets it up. Next thing they know you are playing the piano with it at your desk three hours a day. That would be directly averse to the stated goal of the device, which would be to make the employee more efficient and productive.

But hey, I can play a mean "Chopsticks."

Liberal arts is like a dirty word to many government folks, who have very specific educations. That is not to say that a fair portion, perhaps a large majority, of federal employees do not have liberal arts degrees. They do. But, the cross between liberal arts and technology does not scream of enterprise efficiency. It smacks of the iLife suite of products that are getting natively baked into iOS devices such as iMovie to edit video and Garage Band to create music. During the demos at the iPad 2 event, there was nothing in the way of an enterprise application. It was all about the liberal arts functionalities of the Apple tablet.

(Update: Well, I was wrong. There are far fewer liberal arts and associated majors in the federal government than I thought. The numbers are in, courtesy of the Partnership for Public Service. In 2009 there were 5,995 "liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities" majors in the federal government, excluding the Defense Department. Other liberal arts-style majors had similar levels, such as English and literature at 5,827, visual and performing arts at 5,067 and History with 7,217. The largest major represented in the federal government was business management, marketing and related services with 112,643. Also interesting to note is that there were 17,585 psychology majors. There were 505,744 total people listed in the program breakdown. Majors were defined by the National Center for Education Statistics.)

*Disclaimer – this reporter has a bachelor of arts degree in English and history and a master’s in journalism. I am a reporter, darn it, not a doctor.

The consulting firm Deloitte predicts that there will be 10 to 15 million tablets sold to the enterprise this year. Add that to the many employees who will buy their own and bring it to work and enterprise will be flooded with tablets in the coming year. And most will be iPads, regardless of what Research in Motion, Hewlett-Packard and Google (with Android original equipment manufacturers) have to say about it. It is a tablet groundswell that enterprises will have to deal with and learn to make the most out of.

What say you? Is there an iPad 2 coming to your agency next week?

Posted by Dan Rowinski on Mar 03, 2011 at 12:19 PM


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