Warfighters to app writers: Who better to develop mobile applications

As a part of its broader mobile device efforts, the Army has begun training efforts to teach soldiers how to write their own apps and then make them available for download.

As part of broader efforts to get mobile devices into the hands of troops, the Army has created a program designed to teach personnel how to write programs for commercial handhelds.

Launched in 2010, the Army Mobile Applications Branch began as part of the Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA) program, which is testing a variety of commercial handheld devices for use by soldiers. When the CSDA was launched, it was thought that mobile applications were easy to write, based on the success of commercial ventures such as Apple’s App Store, said Lt. Col. Gregory Motes, chief of the Mobile Applications Branch at Fort Gordon, GA.

The Mobile Applications Branch began as an effort to see if it was possible for the Army to create and launch its own applications store. “The Army wanted to know: Do we have soldiers and government civilians who can write apps, and if so, should we be teaching them to write apps?” Motes said. It turned out that writing apps was harder than it seemed.

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In 2010, Motes was in charge of the school of information technology at Fort Gordon. His superiors asked him if it was possible to establish an applications-writing class for Army personnel, which coincided with the launch of the service’s Apps for the Army effort. Motes gathered several IT students and began writing apps to see what was needed to set up and teach such a course.

Based on this experience, the group at began setting up a service specialization course for training personnel. Once the program was fully launched, Motes and his staff began developing applications full time, which allowed them to fully examine key elements of mobile applications, including developing, securing, certifying, distributing and managing them. “We ended up writing a bunch of apps,” he said.

The Mobile Applications Branch has written some 90 applications that have been downloaded nearly 1.4 million times, Motes said. Two thirds of these applications were published through iTunes or on Android mobile stores. He noted that the program chose to publish its applications through commercial models because they present a distribution mechanism that can reach a wide group of users and provide user feedback.

An important part of the program’s efforts is teaching soldiers to write applications. “We want to develop these capabilities within other organizations in the Army,” Motes said. Although most of the software writing work is taking place in the Army, the program has also been in touch with other services and federal agencies such as law enforcement, the White House and universities, he said.

Working from the Signal Center at Fort Gordon, the program’s staff both writes applications and teaches personnel how to create applications themselves. The program has also been helped by “snow birds” — student officers between classes at the Signal Center who have been recruited to write applications. “We’ve been fairly successful getting students with computer science degrees to work with us,” Motes said.

One of the lessons learned so far is that, although many people can write applications, not everyone can. App writing is not at the same level as creating Web pages and authoring blog content, but Motes said that it is a powerful resource that the Army can benefit from. “What we’ve learned is that this is hard,” Motes said.

The Army has been aggressively pushing to issue soldier smart phones. In a garrison environment on a base, it would make the daily work load more efficient, Motes said. For example, if every student in a training course had a tablet computer it would allow fundamental changes to be made to the curriculum and how training is delivered. If only a fraction of students have mobile devices, it is still possible to work around changes to the curriculum, but the tipping point will not be reached until every student has a device, he said.

Another challenge is getting data to soldiers in a classroom — what does the network need to look like to support this use? Motes asked. From the program’s perspective, can it write applications that are aware of the network and that only provide data that works with the network they reside on? Security remains a major concern for applications, he said.

The Mobile Applications Branch has conducted some limited work on secure applications designed to run on classified networks, but it has mainly focused its efforts on unclassified systems, which allows the group to produce more applications to a wider range of users and to collect feedback, Motes said.