Opinion: I want a military smartphone

The Pentagon wants deployed troops carrying smartphones, and better ones than you or I can buy

The most innovative and important consumer electronics company isn't a company at all. It's the Pentagon.

If that surprises you, consider that U.S. military research built the ocean that Silicon Valley swims in. The Pentagon's research organization, DARPA, funded or helped develop the Internet, GPS, the graphical user interface, the Google StreetView concept, Siri and much more.

Now, the military wants to put smartphones in the hands of all deployed troops. I think their phones are going to be better than regular smartphones. And that's why I want one.

The future of phones

Smartphones are already super thin and super light. Some have big screens but are still pocketable. They have powerful processors.

How can the industry maintain the rate of improvement and innovation of the last five years?

Of course, phones will get faster and lighter. Screen resolution will continue to improve.

The industry has other goodies in store, such as flexible screens and flexible phones. Flexibility will make phones more durable because they'll bend rather than break. Some phones will even be able to fold in half, so you'll be able to open a phone up like a book and double the screen size.

The industry is also working on ubiquitous wireless charging, edge-to-edge screens and many other innovations.

It's all cool stuff. But what I really want is the military superphone the Pentagon is working on.

Why I want a military smartphone

Historically, the military's technology initiatives have been prescient and practical and devoid of those annoying compromises in consumer electronics between what users want and what the industry wants.

Military phones are designed ultimately with the interests of the "users" in mind -- not the interests of the cellphone makers or the service providers.

In some ways, the military's goals for phones are bigger versions of our own goals, but they run counter to the goals of the industry that makes consumer handsets and provides wireless service.

For example, the military wants soldiers to be able to open a Google Maps mashup that shows the location and movements of their allies' forces. They want to make this as easy as possible, while at the same time making it difficult for enemy hackers to see the same information -- even if they get their hands on one of the devices.

That's what we consumers want, too, right? We want to take advantage of powerful location services without putting our privacy at risk.

The industry, however, wants to convince us that in order to enjoy location services, we've got to sacrifice privacy.

The military wants authorized personnel to be able to talk, text and message without the enemy intercepting those messages. So do we consumers.

But the industry wants us to use unsecure text messaging -- it costs them almost nothing, and they can charge us a lot for it. Vendors also want us to use unsecure social networks, unsecure email tools and other unsecure means of communication, all over unsecure Wi-Fi and mobile broadband connections.

The military wants phones with batteries that last a long, long time and can be charged by solar power or by hand-cranked generators, or whatever. So do we.

Alternative-energy solutions built into phones are viewed by the industry as unnecessary and contrary to their obsession with out-slimming the competition.

The military wants indestructible, dustproof, shockproof and waterproof handsets that can be upgraded, augmented and enhanced with standard modular plug-in hardware.

The industry, in contrast, benefits financially from selling fragile phones, because when we drop them on the pavement or in the water, we have to buy new ones.

It would be unfair to accuse the major handset makers of deliberately making easy-to-break or easy-to-scratch phones on purpose. But they certainly don't seem to worry much about it.

First Apple shipped a phone with breakable glass on the back, just because it was pretty. Then, in its desire to make the iPhone as thin as possible, Apple replaced the easy-to-break glass with easy-to-scratch aluminum. Clearly, long-lasting durability is not a priority.

Apple's competitors aren't trying hard, either. Many of them have cheap plastic housings that scratch easily and don't provide much protection.

Finally, the military wants phones that are always connected to the Internet. That could mean satellite connectivity. But more interestingly, the Pentagon is looking at wireless-mesh mobile phone capabilities.

The ideal wireless mesh network for phones would enable mobile phones to connect with each other in a chain all the way to the best connection. Phones, of course, would auto-choose the fastest connection for the device, and also auto-route the connectivity from phone to phone.

I want the wireless mesh option, too.

But the wireless carriers don't even want to think about that. They want each phone user connecting directly to their cell towers, enabling them to nickel-and-dime each and every customer.

In short, the military wants location-capable, highly secure phones that never run out of power and never lose a connection to the network.

That's what I want, too.

In fact, I'd much rather have those capabilities than flexible screens and all the other stuff the industry is planning for consumers.

How to build or buy your own military-grade phone

Unfortunately, military quality phones are unlikely to become available from your wireless carrier or electronics superstore. You'll have to buy one from alternative sources or build your own.

One option is to dump your wimpy, unsecure smartphone and buy a Saife Defender X1, a militarized Android phone. The phone is the product of a partnership between Cummings Engineering and Ascent Rugged Mobile.

All Saife Defender X1 communication is tunneled through something called the "Tactical IP Relay Network (TIPRNET)," which cryptographically signs and encrypts all the data.

The physical hardware is also ruggedized. The company claims the device will survive at altitudes of up to 15,000 feet (compare that to the iPhone's 10,000-foot maximum). It's also shockproof, dustproof and waterproof.

If you want to add secure communication to your iPhone, you might try a solution created by two Navy SEALs.

Called Silent Circle, the app gives you military-grade encryption for email, texts, phone calls and more. Silent Circle is available for the iPhone only, and costs $20 per month.

You can ruggedize your iPhone, and make it waterproof, too, with the right case. There are plenty available from the likes of Griffin, LifeProof, Case-Mate and others.

A company called Aqua Tek is raising money via Kickstarter to develop an iPhone case that's rugged and waterproof and has solar panel on the back.

Other consumer products will get you closer to the military phone of the future. Secure communication, ruggedization and alternative power are the easy part. Location services with real privacy are more difficult. And wireless mesh networking just isn't going to happen.

Still, I look forward to the Pentagon's upcoming superphone. And I hope it influences the consumer market. Because I definitely want one.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him on Google+. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

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Tags consumer electronicsGooglesecuritysmartphonesDARPAprivacy

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