Greetings to all my fellow techies. With warmer weather and calm winds finally hinting at the return of spring, it’s hard to imagine that last week I was trekking across the icy tundra that had somehow caked the lower level of Woodrow Wilson Plaza, making it look more like a hockey stadium than the inviting open-air entranceway to the Ronald Reagan Building downtown.
After a minor tumble, I realized the lower level was actually closed, though I had somehow found my way down there anyway. Alone in the circular arena, it was obvious my only course of action was to backtrack across the ice so I could access the upper level. Sliding like a figure skater, but with much less grace, I finally made it to the edge and around to the sky bridge, which had thankfully been cleared by an army of workers wielding what looked like pick axes and farm hoes.
The ice delayed me getting to the Microsoft Federal Executive Forum event long enough that I missed the opening remarks of former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, though I did catch most of his presentation. I was a bit disappointed he didn’t really say anything newsworthy, though I was pleased he mentioned people and technology in the same breath when talking about how to keep the country safe from cyber-terrorists and threats.
As I’m sure many of you know, the government often focuses on technology and devices when it comes to security, but not always on the people who work so hard to keep us safe. The best technology in the world is of little use if the people using it aren’t properly trained, well-paid and motivated to do good work.
For the rest of the forum, I mostly attended mobility presentations and talked with engineers from companies displaying new products. One of the most interesting things that struck me was that while many companies are developing products and services to help with Bring Your Own Device initiates, quite a few people, either privately or off the record, seemed to feel BYOD in government was a passing phase. So while the focus of many mobility efforts are squarely on BYOD, there is a huge pool of people who apparently don’t think it can, or should, last within government.
That means that instead, government agencies will eventually fall back to the older model where a set of uniform devices are purchased and configured by an agency and then deployed to users. But what devices will be used? A few years ago, the answer was easy: BlackBerry. But with its declining fortunes, it’s safe to say other companies are smelling blood in the water. BlackBerry was so successful at getting into government service because it offered a highly secure alternative, though not necessarily a more convenient one, to every consumer phone on the market at the time.
Which brings us to what I think will be Microsoft’s big play to take up the torch from BlackBerry and become the new secure alternative for phones in government service. Windows phones have not done so well in the consumer market compared to Android and iOS devices, so the move toward government and business makes sense
Sometime this spring, Microsoft plans to push out an Enterprise Feature pack to every Windows phone. This heavy set of tools includes the ability to use S/MIME to sign and encrypt email, automatically configure and access information through a VPN tunnel and the important ability to manage, enroll, update and revoke security certificates for users on a corporate or government network. Sound familiar? It’s pretty much what BlackBerry did years ago that enabled it to dive deep into government service. Going even further, enhanced mobile device management features will allow policies and triggers that can lock down Windows phones and even deny certain apps from being installed.
It’s interesting that Microsoft is choosing to deploy the new update to all Windows phones. Most consumers probably won’t use even basic S/MIME encrypted email. But in this case, I think Microsoft’s light penetration into the consumer market is a boon for government. It’s making government go all in on security and MDM features, things government really needs.
If the Enterprise pack works the way it’s been billed, it’s a safe bet many security-minded civilian agencies as well as those within DOD are going to be interested in mobile devices designed with their unique needs in mind, meaning Windows phones. In that sense, the new security-enhanced devices available this spring could be like the warming rays of the sun, cracking and melting away the somewhat complex mess of BYOD plans in government service today.