Are iOS and Android Devices Good Enough for Government Work?

There are real concerns about the suitability of the new generation of consumer devices for front-line government use.

by / January 30, 2012

On Christmas Day 2011, more than 6.8 million Android and iOS devices were activated, according to an article on Time magazine’s Techland news site. That eclipsed the previous single-day record of 2.8 million activations on Christmas Day 2010.

As goes the consumer, so goes government — at least in regard to how the public wants to access Web-based services and transactions. And while that statistic has implications for public-sector websites and transactions, the move to mobile devices doesn’t stop there: Local government employees are bringing their “stocking stuffers” to work, and want to use them to access email, calendaring or even the entire network.

Compared to the locked-down BlackBerrys used by some public executives, the new devices can respond to spoken instructions, help navigate through traffic to a meeting, even dance, sing and order pizza.

The move to integrate one’s personal device into local government operations is called variously “bring your own device” or “bring your own technology” (BYOD/T). The advantages of allowing employee-owned devices for work-related activities include the savings. The government doesn’t buy the devices or pay for a data plan, and if the device is lost it’s not the government’s problem as long as there is no confidential data residing in the device.

There are risks as well, and an upcoming special section of Government Technology will explore those in greater detail. However, in the course of talking to local government CIOs and staff, we came across some concerns as to the suitability of the new generation of devices for front-line government use.

Riverside, Calif., CIO Steve Reneker, for example, likes the iPad but has some reservations. “It’s a great consumer device, but it’s not yet well suited for business environments due to security issues, and an inability to run business applications in the Microsoft world, specifically a lot of browser-based applications — Flash, things like that just make reading email and attachments impractical,” he said. “So even if you have an iPad, you still need a Microsoft device to be able to read all your content and to be productive.” Reneker said that different uses may require different sized screens, or a regular keyboard.

Several people mentioned that speed with which mobile devices are evolving could become a burden on support staff. Roy Stone, a system support specialist for Long Beach, Calif., said that even mundane tasks like adding a printer or moving files require tech support, and having more than a basic working knowledge of most desktop applications is nearly a full-time job. Adding an array of software, hardware and operating systems, said Stone, could overburden support staff. “I believe BYOD is inevitable,” he said. “But so will be the addition of more tech support personnel.”

Corpus Christi, Texas, has a 147-square-mile Wi-Fi system, said city CIO Michael Armstrong, and about 15-20 iPads are in use, most of which are city-owned. “It’s a tremendous tool, if your job involves consuming information,” he said. “But they’re not really good production devices.”

The city, however, is starting to make GIS available on the iPad and will equip a number of field supervisors with the devices. Since there is citywide Wi-Fi, said Armstrong, they city doesn’t need to buy iPads with the 3G setup. “They stay within our own system when they are doing mobile work. So we’re not going through the public switch to do that.”

Armstrong said the first thing the city puts on each iPad is Dropbox, which makes documents available anywhere on any machine. Armstrong said he uses Dropbox instead of Apple’s iCloud because iCloud is Apple-centric, whereas Dropbox is compatible with iOS, Android and Windows. “iCloud doesn’t run on Android,” said Armstrong, “and will run on Windows, but you have to go through iTunes.” He says iCloud has some nice features, including  5 GB of free storage/ (Dropbox only offers 2 GB of free storage.) But Dropbox will run on virtually anything. “If I had multiple Apple devices, I might switch,” he said, “but I run iOS, Android and Windows; Dropbox works just fine on all.”

Armstrong said Corpus Christi is still using Blackberrys and ruggedized laptops for field workers. “We haven’t really trusted the iPad in that environment, because it’s not built for a ruggedized environment,” he said. “It will be interesting to see what Windows 8 does with the Windows tablet.”

At Issue: Are consumer wireless devices suitable for government work? Do you have experiences with them pro or con? Contact Wayne Hanson with your comments.

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.