Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees
Smartphone platforms and law enforcement
Everyone has a cell phone, and a lot of those ‘everyones’ have something called a smartphone. A smartphone is different from a standard cell phone in that it will run applications that go beyond what have become standard features — telephone, instant messaging, camera, music player, address book. Recently, PoliceOne asked our readership what smartphone apps they are using, and which ones they would like to see.
Just as software written for the PC won’t run on a Mac (without some enabling software as a middleman), applications written for one smartphone operating system (OS) won’t run on the others, and there are several in the mix. Current smartphone OSs include iPhone, Android, Symbian, Windows Mobile, Palm, and BlackBerry.
BlackBerry has about 20 percent of the smartphone market, and is arguably the most popular choice among the business community. The BlackBerry OS is considered more secure than others, especially for communication with enterprise e-mail servers.
“CrackBerries,” as they are known because of their always-in-touch addictive properties, ship with virtually every business application most users need. A great many completely satisfied customers never add any applications beyond those that come with the device.
A search of the BlackBerry App World store didn’t come up with any applications written specifically for police officers, other than a law enforcement theme that will put customized wallpaper and buttons on your display. A PoliceOne reader suggested an app that would turn a BlackBerry hardware button into an emergency alert, sending a distress message when the user pressed it. If there are any BlackBerry software engineers out there, this could be your golden opportunity.
Symbian runs mainly on Nokia and a few Sony and Samsung phones. In February 2010, the Symbian platform was made “opensource” — meaning that the source code was released to the public domain for anyone who wants to tinker with it. This is terrific news for the common man, who will see the benefit of many free or low-cost applications for the platform. There is a Symbian app site, but the choice is not especially extensive, and no law enforcement-specific packages appeared in the list. Ironically, Symbian is still the most popular smartphone OS worldwide, mostly because of the popularity and market penetration of Finnish cellphone maker Nokia.
Open-source software has not been a big moneymaker, historically speaking. This isn’t to say that open source applications aren’t any good. SourceForge.org has quite a variety of applications for Linux (another open-source operating system, this one for the PC) and Windows available, all for free, and most of them as good and cross-compatible with their commercial alternatives such as Microsoft Office, Photoshop, and WinZip.
Palm has become something of a red-headed stepchild among smartphone platforms, even though the PalmPilot was the first commercially successful PDA in the 1990s and started it all. Palm devices started out as having no communications capabilities, then gradually acquired pager modules, a cell phone interface, and for a time shared the smartphone market with BlackBerry. The Palm platform has been lackluster in recent years, and the company was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in April 2010. It’s unknown at this writing what plans HP has for Palm. Thousands of apps have been written for the Palm OS, and most of them are available at PocketGear.com (which also hosts free and paid applications for other smartphone platforms). But there aren’t too many apps for police work specifically.
Android is the newcomer to the smartphone market. Android began as a mobile variant of the aforementioned open-source Linux OS, and was then acquired by Google. The Android OS is now available as an open-source platform again, and its users rave about it. Android presently (mid-2010) holds about 10 percent of the smartphone market, but is predicted to dominate the market with Symbian by 2012. Android phones are presently available from T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon and AT&T.
Because Android was incubated by Google, applications generated by Google slide right into Android. Google Apps that mimic the main features of Microsoft Office, GMail, and Google Voice (among others) run seamlessly on Android. The unsettling aspect of most Google Apps is that the model keeps most of your data in the “cloud,” residing on one or more servers Google owns. When you want your data, the system retrieves it quickly and wirelessly. If you lose your connection to the cloud, you also lose the connection to your data (although some Google Apps will store files on your device, if you ask them to). Many users aren’t especially comfortable giving their data to a third party, and not necessarily being able to get to it when they want.
A Google App that our readers report to be very useful — one that is available on platforms other than Android — is Google Translate. Type a phrase into the box, select which language you would like it translated to, and push the button. The application will even try to recognize the language of whoever you’re trying to communicate with if they key their phrase into the box themselves (on some smartphones, there is a provision to speak the phrase into the phone). If they use an alphabet other than ours, you’ll have to enable the appropriate keyboard on your phone, but it’s do-able. The translations can be laughable, but the general idea gets across. Google Translate is available on any platform that can browse the web. Bring up Google Mobile in the browser of your smartphone to get the mobile-optimized versions.
Android hasn’t been out there all that long, but there are already more than 50,000 apps written for it. The only one I could find that seemed written especially for public safety was the Police Event Recorder, which features touchscreen buttons to log the times of typical events in a call for service, such as dispatch, arrival on scene, arrest, booked, etc. As this OS gains popularity and market share, more apps will appear.
Windows Mobile — known among the geeks as “WinMo” — is Microsoft’s contribution to the mix. As the name suggests, Windows Mobile synchronizes with computers running Windows operating systems, and features lightweight versions of Microsoft Office apps Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint and Access. Most of the later Palm smartphones also came in models enabled for Windows Mobile.
If your shop runs on Microsoft Office and your primary interest is in keeping files generated in Office with you, a Windows Mobile device may be all you need. Windows Mobile is also one of the few smartphone OSs that allow multitasking, e.g. having more than one application running at a time (although iPhone 4.0, scheduled for release in June 2010, is reported to have that capability). This is a very useful feature when you need to copy and paste between applications, or otherwise go back and forth between two or more files.
A downside of multitasking, and one of the reasons that it hasn’t been implemented in other OSs, is the increased load this places on the processor and the internal memory required to support this function. Windows Mobile devices tend to be battery hogs, sucking down the juice faster than others. Users often forget to close applications, and the internal processor burns through electrons maintaining the apps. Each generation of Windows Mobile gets better at managing this problem, but know it’s out there. Battery technology has not kept up with memory and processor evolution, and designers constantly balance the need for higher capacity batteries and smaller form factor devices.
The iPhone is hugely popular with consumers, but not so much with the business market. There are more than 134,000 apps available from the iTunes Store (which is the only place you can purchase approved, “legal” apps), but not many designed for law enforcement. One exception, written by a Portland (Ore.) Police Bureau officer, is Spanish for Police — Audio Phrasebook. This is an electronic version of the booklets and cheat sheets most of us have had at one time or another, listing common questions, commands, instructions and warnings for all types of situations involving police. This app goes a step further by offering a spoken translation of every phrase, audible by tapping the listing for that phrase. I can think of a few hundred times that would have come in handy.
Most of the apps for the iPhone, as well as those for other platforms, cost less than $5.00, and the majority are either $0.99 or free. You don’t usually get to try before you buy, but if what you bought doesn’t turn out to be as good as you hoped, it’s not like you broke the bank to get it. The Spanish app mentioned above is $1.99 — a bargain, even if you use it only once.