A new computing device could revolutionize mobile federal computing. It’s super thin, has a potential battery life of close to nine hours, an ultra high resolution screen and a glass touchpad. It boots in seconds, has 4G connectivity, and it’s all wrapped in carbon fiber and aluminum for lightness and ruggedness.
It’s made by Dell.
The XPS 13 is one of a new class of PCs coming onto the market that, frankly, imitate not the iPad but the MacBook Air. Dell gives you twice the solid state storage as Apple for the same starting point. Other manufacturers are coming out with ultralights, but the XPS 13 comes closest to the mobility gestalt as the market is shaping up. These new machines are not the flimsy, underpowered “netbooks” that are very cheap and worth every penny, but rather top performers in highly engineered form factors.
I say all of this not to endorse either product. Like many people, I use several devices in the course of my daily work ⎯ a regular PC, a Mac, an iPad and an iPhone, and occasionally an older but still perfectly serviceable Windows XP notebook. My preference is Mac but they are not perfect by any means.
My point is that federal technology managers need to take a deep breath and put some perspective into their mobility thinking in the aftermath of the new iPad rollout. You’d think Henry came out with the Model A. Even the Politico newspaper, which usually gets things about two-thirds right, had a story about the federal market for iPads.
It’s true many agencies are acquiring iPads, most notably the Air Force. That deal was initially reported by Bob Brewin and NextGov. Many more are considering how to integrate tablets securely onto federal networks. Security isn’t really that tough an issue, with products from vendors such as Good Technology and Route1.
In my opinion, the real issue for federal mobility will be applications. Right now, the applications that agencies use have architectures and interfaces best suited to devices with full keyboards. There’s no shortage of apps that involve writing. For example, the many popular note jotters. Several Google Document applications are out there. But so far, Microsoft hasn’t ported Office or any Office suite components to the iPad.
This means any data gathering, report-writing, statistical analysis or case management applications would be fundamentally ill-suited to the iPad. One problem is the keyboard itself. The software keyboard on the iPhone is problematic enough because it’s so small. Blown up to iPad size, it works way better. But ⎯ and this may sound like a nitpik but it’s actually a profound problem ⎯ the soft keyboard lacks a forward-delete key and a cursor key. And when you poke at a section of text on either device, the cursor always seems to land just after a space and just before the first letter in a word. You can flick or swipe (or whatever they call it) the text larger on the iPad and more easily put the cursor where you really want it. But the soft keyboard is only partially functional for so many standard computing functions.
I have a third-party keyboard/case combo for my iPad, but I rarely use it because it turns the elegant iPad into an ugly, clunky and rather thick hybrid. Plus, it’s another gadget to worry about charging. Better to have an ultralight traditional computer in the first place.
Also, on iOS and Android devices, the way applications are designed to interact with the display and processor means you can have only one window open at a time, even though the OS remembers where you were in the hidden application. But the way people tend to work is to have several windows open at once.
At least on the Apple side, there seems to be some corporate recognition of these limitations because the company is, step by step, merging its OS-X and iOS operating systems via Lion and, reportedly this fall, Mountain Lion.
For now, though, federal agencies thinking about mobility ⎯ and all of them are ⎯ must focus not so much on infrastructure, security or devices, but on applications, particularly user interfaces and how the mobile components interact with cloud-hosted components.