The Army diesel mechanic sniffed, dismissing my mention of the iPad as a non-serious question. "That thing would never last," she said, "Things get dirty here. We drop things, and we expect them to last."
The tone in her voice made it clear that the idea of using an Apple iPad to do what she referred to as real work was ludicrous. Later I talked to a helicopter crew chief who carries his tablet computer to the flight line every day. "An iPad? You're kidding, right?" he asked.
When I asked about devices like the Amazon Kindle, and the new Galaxy S Tab, the responses were similar. Real work, it seems, requires a real computer. Something from the world of consumer electronics doesn't qualify as a real computer in the U.S. armed forces. During the time I was talking to the soldiers and sailors who carry these electronic devices out into the field, it became clear that for the people who do real work, consumer grade electronics just don't cut it.
Later, as I was talking to a Richard Lane, a vice president at AMREL, a company that builds tablet computers for the military, I found out just how much the soldiers that use them depend on these devices.
On the company's Web site is a letter from a special operations soldier who wrote that his tablet computer literally saved his life while on patrol near Kirkuk, Iraq-a sniper's bullet meant for him hit the tablet computer in his backpack instead. The computer was damaged, but the soldier was unharmed.
Of course, few computers of any kind are sold with the idea that they'd be expected to substitute for body armor, but today's military members use tablets every day in a variety of places, and in nearly every case these devices are expected to do far more than any iPad or Android tablet could be expected to survive.
In many cases, these machines store the technical manuals the soldiers and sailors need to maintain and repair the equipment that's needed to keep the military on the move. This means that when an aircraft mechanic climbs to the top of a helicopter to make a repair, he takes his tablet computer with him so that he has the manuals, drawings and parts lists necessary to do the work.