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Need an Airstrike? They got an App for That.
by James Dunnigan
October 10, 2010

The iPhone now has an app for calling in air strikes. This is part of a trend. Specialized, and now portable, computers have been used in the military for decades, to help troops who call in artillery fire, or air strikes. But these "forward controllers" have to lug around a lot of gear, as they move, often on foot, with the infantry they support. Every bit of weight counts. The less you carry, the more energy you have for life-and-death tasks. Now, Apple has an app for that, and the forward controllers can leave behind gear that has now been replaced by an iPhone app. 

These military apps came about as the U.S. Army set up a special military apps program with the Apple Corporation. This evolved over the last few years because soldiers have long been enthusiastic users of Apple products (iPod and iPhone, and now the iPad as well). But Apple has tight control over what software can be used on these devices, so the military needed a close relationship with Apple just to get their custom military software on the iPods, iPhones and iPads the troops are so enthusiastic about.

This relationship enabled the army to run a programming contest earlier this year. Troops and civilian employees were challenged to develop as many good military-specific apps as they could in 75 days. The goal was to create the most effective smart phone software for the troops. Mainly, this was for the iPhones (and iPod Touch), but also for other smart phones like those using the Google Android operating system. The army believes their military and civilian personnel know what applications are most needed. The troops have already decided what hardware they most need, because they have been buying iPods and iPhones with their own money. The challenge contest attracted 114 military and army civilian competitors, who created 53 apps by the deadline. Cash prizes were given out to 15 of the best Apple and Android apps ($27,500 for the top three finishers in five different categories.)

The army sees these portable devices as key battlefield devices. Not just for communication, but for a wide range of data handling (computer) chores. The army wants to work closely with Apple to ensure the troops get the software they need, as well as customized hardware. Details are largely kept secret.

This is all part of a trend. In the last decade, the U.S. military found the iPod music player an increasingly useful tool. This happened for two reasons. As time went on (the iPod was introduced just after September 11, 2001), more and more troops bought iPods. By 2005, most troops had them. The iPod was the perfect entertainment device for the battlefield. When you got a chance to take a break, you put in the ear buds, turned it on, and were in a different place for a few minutes. The iPod battery usually kept going until the next time you got a chance to recharge.

The second reason was that, from the beginning, the iPod could do other things (run software for things other than listening to music). That's because the iPod was, basically, a very small personal computer. In fact, the iPhone is basically an high end iPod (sold as such as the iPod Touch), with cell phone capability added.

At first, most of the other iPod software was games, but soon non-game applications were added. There was a problem for the military, however. Except for some skilled hackers, no one but Apple, or with the help of Apple, could create software for the iPod. Despite that, the U.S. Army had some military software written for the iPod. This worked well, but it took over a year to get new software for an iPod, a delay that did not encourage rapid development. That changed two years ago, when Apple opened its App Store, and released a tool kit (SDK) for programmers to develop software for the iPhone and iPod Touch. This meant that military programmers could create Touch software to suit their needs, and do it quickly. In less than a year, hundreds of military-specific Touch programs have been created. Many do not show up in the App Store, as they are only for military use.

The Touch has become the new "most favorite gadget" for the troops. It's cheap (under $230), has the same interface as the iPhone, has several hundred thousand programs (and growing rapidly) available, and can also serve as an iPod (to listen to music or view vids). What the military sees the Touch as is the PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) that has often (in many different models) been issued over the years, but never really caught on. The Touch has caught on, and it does the job better than any earlier PDA. The Touch also has wi-fi built in, making it easier for the troops to get new software or data onto their Touch. The iPad is basically a larger Touch, and popular for reading magazines. Troops have long been reading books on the iPhone and Touch.

For use in the combat zone, troops usually put one of the many protective covers on their Touch, and, so far, the Touch has held up well under battlefield conditions. Meanwhile, some of the software written for earlier iPods, is now available for the Touch. This includes the VCommunicator Mobile software and libraries. This system translates English phrases into many foreign languages. Each language takes up four gigabytes per language, so they easily fit on the Touch. The software displays graphics, showing either the phrase in Arabic, or a video of a soldier making the appropriate hand gesture (there are a lot of those in Arabic), and this looks great on the Touch. There are collections of phrases for specific situations, like checkpoint, raid or patrol. You can use any accessory made for the iPod, like larger displays or megaphones.

All this is nothing new. When PCs first showed up in the late 1970s, younger troops were, as usual, early adopters. And many of them quickly found ways to create software that made their jobs easier. Databases and programs, created by the troops, that figured things out more quickly and effortlessly, kept showing up throughout the 1980s. It took about a decade for the brass to catch on, and another decade for the senior military people to embrace this flood of computerization. So when the iPod Touch came along, it was quickly adopted. And no one in uniform was surprised. This was in large part because so many of today's generals and admirals remember how programmable calculators were introduced when they were young, and how they and their troops adopted these devices for military use. This rapid adoption of technology has now become part of the military DNA, and it started at the bottom.

 


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