Support: The iPod Revolution

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April 30, 2009: In the last few years, the U.S. military has 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 plug your recharger in.

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. 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 last Summer when Apple opened its App Store, and released a tool kit (SDK) for programmers to develop software for the iPhone and iPod Touch (an iPod that looked like the iPhone, but wasn't a phone). 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 $300), has the touch interface (just like the iPhone), has over 30,000 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.

The army has been developing translation devices like this since 2001. All previous ones needed a laptop or PDA (a device made obsolete by more powerful cell phones). The VCommunicator Mobile approach took advantage of the fact that most troops had iPods and knew how to operate them. That saved a lot of training time. It was also discovered that many Iraqis were familiar with iPods, or had their own. They were fascinated by this use of the iPod, and this helped break the tension. While the translation is one way, but asking for "yes/no" answers, or directions (to an arms cache, a wanted man, or someone in need of medical help), the VCommunicator Mobile worked quite well.

While troops quickly pick up a basic vocabulary of phrases, the VCommunicator Mobile accelerates the process, as troops can use it to help them learn more Arabic (or Dari or Phusto). VCommunicator Mobile also comes with an editor, that runs on a laptop, enabling troops to edit their libraries, adding new phrases or reorganizing them. The army has found that the troops can handle a lot of technology, if the stuff is actually useful. In that case, soldiers will often buy stuff with their own money. The army has also provided a solar recharger for the iPods of troops spending a lot of time out in the hills of Afghanistan.

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. 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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