NASA gives employees iPhone option

The space agency also is testing other smartphone devices, including the Android and iPad. It is one of the first agencies to approve the issuance of iPhones to...

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

NASA employees are among the first federal workers who can choose to receive Apple iPhone from their agency.

The Space Agency added the 3G version of the popular smartphone to its ODIN schedule where centers purchase a standard set of computer hardware.

“The iPhone is one of our really great success stories because we started testing the iPhones when they first came out and we initially realized they were not ready for the enterprise yet,” said Tony Facca, IT project manager for NASA’s Emerging Technology and Desktop Standards division. “We were looking for things like enterprise management, a little better device encryption. We fed that information back to Apple and when the 3G came out, we tested that. We’ve had pilot users in our environment. So when the 3GS came out, we finally said this is the device NASA could build into a service delivery for our customers.”

Now NASA offices can purchase iPhones for employees through the ODIN schedule similarly to the way it buys BlackBerry devices, desktop and laptop computers. This comes after NASA recently did an analysis of all the devices-government owned and employee owned-on its network and found more than 9,000 non-BlackBerry mobile devices. Facca says this means employees were using their personal devices on NASA’s network to at least check e-mail.

Facca’s office is evaluating not only the iPhone-the 4G version now-but also the Google Android, the Apple iPad and a similar tablet touch screen computer running the Microsoft Windows operating system.

“Now that we’ve done some process development for the iPhone testing, we now are using a lot of the lessons learned to reduce the time it takes from the introduction of the technology to be able to provide it to our customers,” he said. “It’s a device you really don’t know what’s going to happen when you get it into the hands of scientists at NASA that really come up with some great uses that we hadn’t at all anticipated.”

He said he foresees a time in the next year or so that NASA employees can choose from any number of advanced mobile devices.

“I think the iPhones and iPads have matured very well with the ability to do some enterprise support,” Facca said. “We are still working with Apple and AT&T to do enterprise billing. It’s a big deal for a federal agency to buy applications in bulk and have them all owned by the government and doled out to the customers. We look to get things from this pilot testing phase and into production as quickly as possible.”

NASA also has developed a process by which employees can build mobile apps.

Facca says some applications are local to a specific center, such as a bus schedule, or more complex software that pulls together data about shuttle launches.

NASA’s lawyers had to work out the terms and conditions with Apple because of software development requirements on both ends.

“What we want to be able to do is introduce applications with a similar look and feel as NASA applications,” he said. “We want people when they are searching on the Apps store to find them easily, so a naming convention, making sure they are compiled with the same certificate because if you download an application you want it to run across the agency, not just the center it was developed. It’s technical things, but the kind of things that are necessary to make it an enterprise level service.”

NASA also has tested the Motorola Droid, and now is looking at version 2 of the operating system to see how it meets their needs. At least some NASA centers are testing the Droid on a limited basis.

Additionally, Facca said his office soon will test another tablet touch-screen device running Windows.

“We have a lot of people are who are traditional tablet users that are saying they would like something like an iPad slate but would like a real operating system, on there, something that will run My Exchange, Outlook client and Microsoft Office and applications in a multi-touch environment,” he said. “Windows 7 has introduced the ability to do multi-touch across the entire architecture.”

In the short time NASA has issued iPhones and tested other devices, the feedback has been positive, he said.

Of about 50 respondents to what Facca called a “non-scientific poll,” 90 percent say it’s very important for NASA to continue to support these devices; every respondent said the iPhone increased their productivity and every respondent uses the device to access NASA e-mail.

“In my 25 years of doing IT, I never had everyone agree that the new technology increased productivity,” he said.

NASA also did a similar survey of iPad users, and found comparative results.

About 81 percent of the respondents said the iPad increased productivity, 62 percent said NASA user support is very important and 50 percent said availability through ODIN was very important.

Facca said what surprised him the most was the 23 percent who said NASA’s user support was not important to them. He interpreted that to mean employees will use it no matter if NASA supports it or not.

“People are buying the device for the applications, for the user productivity and they don’t want IT [policies and regulations] getting in the way of that and that is coming across loud and clear in our surveys,” he said.

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