Enthusiasm for tablets grows in government

Government workers are dying to get their hands on tablet computers, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act and published by Government Attic. The files show, however, that security protocols may result in a slow roll-out at some agencies.

The Federal Trade Commission, National Archives and Records Administration, Deparment of Veterans Affairs, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Tennessee Valley Authority each produced internal records which discuss the merits of iPads and similar devices.

Another federal agency, the General Services Administration, said that it would charge $113,680 to yield its internal discussions.

Though Apple's market-leading tablet appears to be the clear choice among rank-and-file workers, emails show security-focused IT staff leaning toward RIM's BlackBerry Playbook instead—at least until they get a closer look at it.

At the National Archives, released documents[PDF] included a proposal to "extend the availability of tablets to potentially all NARA staff," a capital planning review, and various memos and emails between staff.

"We have found the iPad for be very useful in investigating work at the OIG," wrote one agency official. "For example, instead of taking a bulky laptop to the collector shows where we have a display, or in some cases just walk around to meet and greet, the iPad works much better. It is light, has great battery power and is super fast."

The capital planning review saw nearly universal enthusiasm in the feedback garnered: "The iPad has dramatically improved my productivity," says one worker. " … It would be great if we could find an iPad use for staff tied to our hard core busines functions – record centers, pulls/re-files, description, reference, etc. That would yield a big productivity gain and demonstrate a solid business case for more widespread use of tablets for our staff."

Adds another: "NARA should start building [iPad] apps for customers."

In the VA's disclosures[PDF], a memo dated August 22 describes a a pilot program established to determine the viability of iOS. The program, conducted with the help of Agilex, a government IT services contractor, was scheduled to end Oct 1. The memo prohibited field operations staff from purchasing more iOS devices: "VA currently has enough pilot users to determine viability…"

In another letter, the VA's assistant IT secretary writes that its remote access solutions are not compatible with devices such as the iPad, and discusses the measures they might take to allow workers to use them.

A selection of heavily-redacted documents from the FTC include details of a pitch from RIM to equip staff with its Blackberry PlayBook tablet[PDF]. Unfortunately for the Canadian firm, the device's shortcomings soon crop up in the form of a negative PC World review shared among officials.

At the Tennessee Valley Authority, staff produced a slick internal newsletter[PDF] covering the increased interest in tablets.

At the NHTSA, the BlackBerry Playbook is seen to have security advantages over the iPad[PDF]: "Given that Blackberry has built a strong reputation in enterprise security for movile deices in the federal sector, it does give it a leg up over Apple in the Enterprise Security space," writes one staffer in an email.

Responding to reports of increased interest in Apple's iPad by other government agencies, a senior IT project manager suggests Apple's portables are insecure due to the ability of users to "jailbreak" them.

"It's pretty obvious that with a security flaw clearly known, these devices should not be distributed beyond the R&D group," he writes. "I guess I have to ask the obvious, how is this an authorized piece of hardware at this point in any gov't shop?"

Unfortunately, RIM's alternative suffers from its own disadvantage: no-one seems to want one.

"I'm not hearing a huge uproar for the Playbook, probably 'cause of the downsides … mentioned below," writes on staffer.

"I'm going to skip it," writes the project manager, concluding one email thread released to the public. "I only had a passing fancy."