Mobile & Wireless at War

I spent last week in Mexico as a volunteer pharmacist at a free clinic in Escarcega, a small town on the Yucatan Peninsula. Because English-language news was all but impossible to obtain, I settled for a Mexican newspaper called "Reforma" (published in Mexico City) on my return flight. To my surprise, on Page 4A of the Sunday, March 23 edition, I saw a sketch of a PDA wearing a soldier's helmet. I'm not well versed in Spanish, but I was able to pull some company names out of that story, and as a result can report that PDAs and other mobile devices have gone to war.

A company called Talla-Com Industries ( ) is selling a ruggedized Pocket PC device designed for military use: The Tacter-R PDA runs Windows CE for Pocket PC 2002. The device offers a 400MHz Intel XScale CPU, 64MB of RAM, 32MB of ROM, modular expansion capabilities, and an internal tactical modem. You can use the Tacter-R with a commercial or optional embedded Global Positioning System (GPS). The company also sells the Tacter-31, a larger unit built around a 500MHz Pentium III CPU running Windows NT 4.0. Both the US Army and US Marine Corps use the Tacter-31A.

After researching Talla-Com, I dug around for other military PDA products. Raytheon, a large defense contractor, has developed the Raytheon Agama ( ), a ruggedized version of the Hewlett-Packard HP iPAQ Pocket PC for military use. Specifications seem to be the same as those of the off-the-shelf iPAQ; however, Raytheon has replaced the typical silver iPAQ case with a bulky green plastic cover. The military pays about five times as much for an Agama as you would pay for an iPAQ.

Palm OS-based devices apparently outnumber Pocket PCs and other Windows CE devices in military scenarios--particularly for electronic publishing. For example, the Air Force offers Palm-compatible fact sheets about various topics ( ). Also, the US Navy's Naval Education and Training Command offers a Palm edition of its "Navy Leader Planning Guide" ( ).

PDAs are gaining an increasing importance in homeland security. Last week, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a pilot program ( ) to test the use of handheld devices for transmitting urgent information about biological agents (e.g., anthrax, plague, ebola) to doctors.

I've had less success finding examples of military wireless communications (probably because much of it is classified). However, I'm intrigued by one item that turned up in my search: The Naval Postgraduate School's Cebrowski Institute has initiated The Nemesis Project, which will study wireless information trustworthiness. Initially, the Cebrowski Institute is using a mobile 802.11 network to configure Nemesis.

Past wars lead me to suspect that some of the technology developed for military use today will eventually work its way into civilian devices. And all users will reap the benefits.

Finally, I'd like to give Mobile & Wireless UPDATE readers a heads-up: I'm working on a review of Tablet PC devices for a forthcoming edition of Windows & .NET Magazine. If you'd like me to answer particular questions about Tablet PCs, please let me know and I'll try work the answers into the review. You can email me at [email protected]

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