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First Look: Inside The Army’s App Store For War

If all of the bureaucratic and security hurdles can be overcome, the Army will soon launch its version of an app store, where soldiers can download Army-relevant software to their work computers and – with a little luck – mobile phones. This is what its homepage will look like.

Called Army Marketplace, it’ll start off featuring the few dozen applications that soldiers created last year during the Apps for the Army contest. Those early efforts ran the gamut from workout guides to digitized manuals for standard Army tasks. So far, there are 17 apps for Android phones and another 16 for iPhones.

But the Army Marketplace will do more than sell existing apps. It’ll help generate ideas for new ones, says Lt Col Gregory Motes, chief of the Army’s new Mobile Applications Branch. Imagine that a soldier wants an app instructing how to call for artillery fire, and the app doesn’t exist yet. The soldier would post a description of what she needs on a Marketplace forum, attracting discussion from fellow soldiers and potential designers.

If other troops can’t home-brew a solution, the Army would open a bidding or contracting process from would-be vendors who’ve expressed interest on the thread. Ideally, the app would be available on Marketplace not long thereafter, with a nominal purchase price, a la the App Store or Android Market.

“It’d use an agile software-development process, to close with the vendor and try to quickly turn these apps around,” Motes tells Danger Room. “The current process of software creation [in the Army]is a very long and arduous process. That’s how we do things. But app development needs to be done quickly.”

You’ll have to be a member of the Department of defence community to see the store and access its wares. It’ll be hosted on a secure DOD server and require a username and password from intranets like Army Knowledge Online. Eventually, Marketplace will become an app of its own, loadable onto the forthcoming Army-issued smartphone so users aren’t tied to a website. Marketplace isn’t meant for the general public – which creates problems for how it interacts with smartphones. (More on that in a moment.)

Army Marketplace’s designers are also working on personalised user pages to facilitate the app exchange. On them, customers announce their needed apps, propose new ones, and exchange criticism. On the right hand side of that inside page are auto-generated lists of “Top Ideas” and “Top Projects” that others have generated. (That’s a screenshot of a personalised page, above.)

Army brass like Gen Peter Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff often seen thumbing like mad on his iPhone 4, view apps as a game-changing approach to pushing information down to the lowest ranks and exponentially increasing the Army’s ability to learn and adapt. So the service has set up new shops – like Motes’ parent organisation, called Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications – inside the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, to help generate an ecosystem of military-friendly applications.

Eventually, the Army will host apps that track the location of friendly forces or map out wartime terrain or translate foreign languages. Software writers and defence companies have already created all of those. On top of that, the Army will launch its second Apps for the Army contest later this year as a way to generate both more apps and a constituency for them inside the service.

There’s just one small problem. The government hasn’t certified any single mobile device as secure enough to receive data from its networks. If all goes according to plan, the Army will unveil Marketplace in August, at the LandWarNet convention. That’ll mean whatever applications are currently available could be easily sent to a soldier’s work computer – which doesn’t really help, given the whole idea is to allow mobile access to the corpus of Army information.

The Army’s now testing Google’s Android OS to power its first smartphone prototype. That’s made by MITRE, the federally funded defence consultancy. Other defence companies use Android’s open architecture as the backbone of their own mobile devices that they’d like to sell the Army, such as Raytheon’s RATS and General Dynamics’ GD300. But the Army isn’t near close to settling on an operating system or a mobile device for its ultimate goal of requiring soldiers to carry a smartphone just as they carry a rifle.

And no Android phone has so much as started going through the process of having the National Institute of Standards and Technology certify it as secure-enough to host government data. The iPhone has started the process, Motes says, but is still months away from finishing it.

That’s why government BlackBerries can process someone’s official mail and do practically nothing else a civilian smartphone does. As of now, “we don’t have a solution for authenticating applications or secure websites,” Motes says.

How long until a phone receives certification? “An optimist might say 12 months,” Motes assesses, but being pragmatic, it’s further down the road.”

Until then, Marketplace will be a good place to download web apps and dream up apps of the future. It won’t be useful for loading up your phone with Army apps.

But it’s possible, Motes says, that “commanders can take risks” if they can convince the Army there’s a pressing need in a “tactical environment” for skipping certification. Welcome to the laborious process of getting the Army prepared for the day when every soldier is required to carry a secured smartphone.

That’s not the only challenge. Congress’ inability to pass a budget for months set back the apps program. A LandWarNet debut for Marketplace remains the goal, Motes says, and “if they don’t announce at LandWarNet, then it’s just a big sigh.” Another headache is securing the apps themselves, a process of going through code “line by line” looking for potential security flaws, which “is gonna drive us crazy”.

But at least Motes is convinced that at the end of this process is an agile website and mobile portal that will connect soldiers to apps that will let them do their jobs better. It’s a lot more functional and intuitive than the laughable attempt at a placeholder homepage for the Apps for the Army results, called Storefront, currently hosted at storefront.mil/army:

Motes sums up Storefront in one word: “Busted.” Now to see if Marketplace will fix it.


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