iPad, Android Tablets Won't Survive Computing at the Gates of Hell

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2010-11-05

iPad, Android Tablets Won't Survive Computing at the Gates of Hell

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. 

iPad, Android Tablets Won't Survive Computing at the Gates of Hell

title=Military Tablets Are More Than Digital Body Armor} 

When that diesel mechanic pulls a fuel injector for servicing, she's got the step by step instructions for the specific engine and the specific injector that she's servicing. There's no guesswork, and there's no box containing hundreds of pounds of paper manuals that once traveled with military maintenance organizations. Tablets are there in the field and in combat because they're needed to make the people that use them more effective. 

The need for portable computing that works under difficult conditions has been known for a long time. When I was a young naval officer working at the Defense Logistics Agency, one of the projects we were already planning was a move to digitize manuals, engineering drawings and other maintenance materials just to get rid of the paper that otherwise had to follow each movement of troops. 

We had already calculated that the manuals for the equipment on board a Navy ship weighed thousands of pounds that could be offloaded if only there was a replacement. At the time there wasn't, but since then things have changed, and rugged tablets for serious computing needs have moved in. 

Serious computing is the key. While sleek iPads and other consumer tablets get all the attention, the real work is being done by tablets that are mounted in shock absorbing material, surrounded by titanium cases, with shatterproof screens. 

These devices aren't pretty, they aren't light, and they don't play videos from iTunes. Instead they feature triple-redundant waterproofing, a magnesium frame and sealed compartmentalized construction. They help members of the military navigate, read maps, and control robots. They are the keepers of information that's needed to fix the tanks, the trucks, aircraft and ships that make the mission possible. 

In the real world, where real work has to be done, in the factories, the oil rigs, the flight lines and the police cars of the world you'll find tablet computers helping to do that real work. They're not sexy, they don't run anything newer than Windows XP (although Windows 7 will appear), but the stories of failure are rare. Sometimes they won't boot after being submerged for days. Sometimes a decade of dust finally does its work. And sometimes, it's a bullet.

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