The Army has been making noise since last December about how it wanted to equip all its soldiers with smartphones. It's been officially "in the market" since then, and today Wired reported that it has developed a prototype device powered by Android. The so-called Joint Battle Command-Platform will be open to app developers in July. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is looking into early, basic functions like mapping and communications.
This has been a strange few months for the Army. Like anyone preparing to invest in an expensive piece of technology, it's trying to get its research right, and now is a tumultuous time in smartphone development. In March, a study found Android was faster at loading Web pages than iPhone, but then the results of that study were instantly questioned. It seems like there's a different preferred model every day.
Smartphones “are a really rich target,” Joe Pasqua, VP for research at Symantec, said in a briefing for reporters today. For example, Android phone applications receive no security screening before they are released, and iPhone apps receive a cursory scrub. Those apps could be loaded with malware “that can take down a cell tower,” he said. Currently, Android phones face four known malware threats, he said.
Of course, app developers are eyeing the Army's decision process with mouths watering. Last summer, the Army held an app-design contest within its ranks of soldiers and civilian workers. That was before it announced its cellphone-in-every-pocket plan, but it still got 53 entries and chose 25 apps for development. That number is destined to skyrocket now that the hardware has been identified.
The question of whether those at the top of the chain of command would make a decision that would benefit those in the middle or bottom has been a delicate one. In a February DODlive roundtable, Lt. Gen. Michael Vane described a "cultural challenge" between "digital natives" who use mobile technology every day, and the less-tech-savvy decision-makers at the top.
“People that haven’t grown up with that have a cultural challenge with the use of these technologies and the ability to pick one of these things up and operate them very quickly, to look at a smaller screen, use a different sort of keypad — all those sort of kind of things… there’s a cultural challenge that is part of the issue for the more senior people,” Vane said.
The new prototype is much more than a phone, it's a whole computing environment and suite of digital gadgets that approaches the capabilities of the Nett Warrior. But still, for all the talk, the research, the commentary and the testing, Wired reminds us that this current model is still just a prototype. "That’s not to say the current phone prototype will be what the Army ends up issuing soldiers." It's enough to make you want to throw up your hands, stalk out of the cell phone store and let the sales clerk deal with Grandma on his own.