Support: Calling All Competitive Programmers


March 18, 2010: The U.S. Army is spending about $53,000 to run a programming contest. Troops and civilian employees are eligible for a hundred prizes (totaling $30,000) for those who can create the most effective software for the troops. The software is to be written for Apple iPhones (and iPod Touch) and Google Android smart phones. The army believes their military and civilian personnel know what applications are most needed. The army expects to see programs written that would otherwise cost them over $3 million to create. If the contest succeeds, the army plans to make it an annual event, or simply an ongoing program. All this because the troops are finding smart phones an incredibly useful tool, on the battlefield and off.

And not just smart phones. In the last decade, the U.S. military found the iPod music player an increasingly useful tool. This happened for two reasons. As time went on (the iPod was introduced just after September 11, 2001), more and more troops bought iPods. By 2005, most troops had them. The iPod was the perfect entertainment device for the battlefield. When you got a chance to take a break, you put in the ear buds, turned it on, and were in a different place for a few minutes. The iPod battery usually kept going until the next time you got a chance to recharge.

The second reason was that, from the beginning, the iPod could do other things (run software for things other than listening to music). That's because the iPod was, basically, a very small personal computer. In fact, the iPhone is basically an high end iPod (sold as such as the Ipod Touch), with cell phone capability added.

At first, most of the other iPod software was games, but soon non-game applications were added. Except for some skilled hackers, no one but Apple, or with the help of Apple, could create software for the iPod. Despite that, the U.S. Army had some military software written for the iPod. This worked well, but it took over a year to get new software for an iPod, a delay that did not encourage rapid development. That changed two years ago, when Apple opened its App Store, and released a tool kit (SDK) for programmers to develop software for the iPhone and iPod Touch. This meant that military programmers could create Touch software to suit their needs, and do it quickly. In less than a year, hundreds of military-specific Touch programs have been created. Many do not show up in the App Store, as they are only for military use.

The Touch has become the new "most favorite gadget" for the troops. It's cheap (under $200), has the same interface as the iPhone, has over 100,000 programs (and growing rapidly) available, and can also serve as an iPod (to listen to music or view vids). What the military sees the Touch as is the PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) that has often (in many different models) been issued over the years, but never really caught on. The Touch has caught on, and it does the job better than any earlier PDA. The Touch also has wi-fi built in, making it easier for the troops to get new software or data onto their Touch.

For use in the combat zone, troops usually put one of the many protective covers on their Touch, and, so far, the Touch has held up well under battlefield conditions. Meanwhile, some of the software written for earlier iPods, is now available for the Touch. This includes the VCommunicator Mobile software and libraries. This system translates English phrases into many foreign languages. Each language takes up four gigabytes per language, so they easily fit on the Touch. The software displays graphics, showing either the phrase in Arabic, or a video of a soldier making the appropriate hand gesture (there are a lot of those in Arabic), and this looks great on the Touch. There are collections of phrases for specific situations, like checkpoint, raid or patrol. You can use any accessory made for the iPod, like larger displays or megaphones.

All this is nothing new. When PCs first showed up in the late 1970s, younger troops were, as usual, early adopters. And many of them quickly found ways to create software that made their jobs easier. Databases and programs, created by the troops, that figured things out more quickly and effortlessly, kept showing up throughout the 1980s. It took about a decade for the brass to catch on, and another decade for the senior military people to embrace this flood of computerization. So when the iPod Touch came along, it was quickly adopted. And no one in uniform was surprised. This was in large part because so many of today's generals and admirals remember how programmable calculators were introduced when they were young, and how they and their troops adopted these devices for military use. This rapid adoption of technology has now become part of the military DNA, and it started at the bottom.


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