The Army's Smartphone Problems Are Worse Than Yours

Wrapping up battlefield testing, the Army has some familiar issues with iPhones and Androids

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Do you get mad when your iPhone takes too long locating you on a map or downloading your email? Yeah, it's frustrating, but at least your life doesn't depend on it. The U.S. Army is wrapping up a six-week testing program for smartphones, and they're reporting some familiar problems. CNN reports that the Army has tested over 300 different Android, iPhone and Windows phones in addition to some models by Hewlett-Packard and Dell at training areas in New Mexico and Texas. The off-the-shelf devices are popular with soldiers who've used similar devices outside of the battle, but they also carry the same bugs that frustrate customers:

A few devices have proved problematic, though. One popular phone from Samsung Electronics failed to connect to cellular networks and had bugs in its Android operating system, McCarthy said. So Sprint Nextel exchanged it for a different Samsung model, [Army program director Michael McCarthy] said.

The Army group initially had some trouble testing the iPhone in the desert grounds, due to a problem many longtime owners of the popular Apple device know all too well. "AT&T didn't provide service there," McCarthy said.

The dependability of these devices on the battlefield is clearly important. The army's number two officer and number one iPhone fan, General Peter Chiarelli, has championed the implementation of better communication technology on the battlefield as a way to save lives. "Now we can start to avoid, I think, instances of fratricide because you know when somebody comes into your operational area," Chiarelli told USA Today of the smartphone program. "The battlefield is a confusing area."

The Army has been working furiously on technology to cut that confusion, but it doesn't always work. Their simple but very antiquated GPS-enabled system, Blue Force Tracker, is supposed to work a bit like any given maps app for a smartphone. Friendlies show up as little blue dots from above, and then warplanes know not to shoot them.  This technology is meant to save lives like the five Afghan soldiers killed in a 2008 friendly fire incident in Afghanistan, which some believe was caused by confusion over access to advanced technology. The Army has also been developing on cell phone blocking technology in order to keep insurgents from talking to each other in the field, and it's easy to imagine how these devices could also interrupt smartphone service.

Inevitably, the past history of the military crossing its wires may lead to a custom-built device that won't interfere with existing technology. One unit in the smartphone testing is also tinkering with a custom-built, Android-powered device called the Joint Battle Command-Platform. Despite the unsexy name, the phone can do everything soldiers need--text message updates, map out battlefields, stream video back to base--but it's a bit bulky. Officers hope they can jerry-rig a highly portable, off-the-shelf smartphone to do the same and also boast the same security standards as other Army communications. The military is used to modifying devices, anyway. "Every time we buy commercial communication technology we start worrying about protection or interception of signals by our enemies or its sustainability," said Loren Thompson who works at the defense think tank Lexington Institute. "By the time the Army's done with it, it's no longer a commercial, off-the-shelf product."

We can expect to be be shipping soldiers to Afghanistan with smartphones this fall. Based on the testing, the Army says they'll be use two different devices. Our best guess is that they'll be the already customized Android and the officer-approved iPhone. And with any luck, neither won't be freezing up or dropping calls.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.