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Robert MacMillan's Random Access

At FOSE, English as a Second Language

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2005; 10:24 AM

I spent part of the last two days at FOSE, and now I find myself reevaluating my English skills.

FOSE is a technology trade show financed by washingtonpost.com's parent company. Representatives of hundreds of technology firms descend upon the Washington Convention Center every spring about this time and try to persuade federal government decisionmakers to buy their products for their agencies. It's pronounced "FAH-see" like Dian Fossey or Bob Fosse. It used to stand for "Federal Office Systems Expo," but the acronym clings on even though it's come to mean much more than staplers and copy machines.

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FOSE celebrated its 29th anniversary this week, and based on the several years that I've attended it, I can say that its participants remain dedicated to a patois of technology terms and government gobbledygook that would bewilder Umberto Eco. The result is that the news organizations that cover this annual trade show write about it in such a way that few would bother reading about it.

This aversion is unfortunate, if understandable. It's difficult for the average reader to get excited by come-ons such as "viewable solutions for facility management" and "the only KVM switch evaluated by NIAP to meet EAL4 common criteria."

Nevertheless, FOSE is the first stage in a process that will touch people's lives. Most importantly, one could argue, this trade show is about money. Many technology companies hawking their wares here specialize in "streamlining" processes now used by government agencies. The ultimate goal? Making the agencies' technology more efficient. We the people see the practical effects of such efforts at Web sites such as the IRS.gov, which allows us to file our returns online. (Psst, you have one week left!)

The lingo bandied about at FOSE also tends to mask some services that are pretty cool. At booth 3629, I was bewildered by the mission statement of a company called Tadpole Computer: "Deployable solutions for secure applications." What on earth does that mean? I asked two of the company's executives.

It turns out that what the company does is way more interesting than its tagline. Tadpole develops computers and servers (with names like "Bullfrog," of course) that military and covert forces can drop into a remote area or combat zone with their troops, and then quickly move them out again. Normally, this would involve moving hundreds of pounds of equipment, but Tadpole has it down to a couple small laptops and a server that could fit in a backpack. It's technology for the busy black ops professional.

There are other genuinely interesting companies making pitches at FOSE. Red Dot Solutions, says President Detlef Kamps, helps people who don't know much about technology create and publish their data in electronic media. OK, not too sophisticated a purpose, but an invaluable one for people who don't like getting technical.

Then there's Senforce, which designs technology to let people use wireless devices without exposing sensitive data. You, the busy Dept. of Energy analyst, want to take your laptop to Starbucks to do some work on their wireless network, but don't want the top secret nuclear reactor safety plans to be available to any espresso-fueled hackers nearby? Senforce has your back.

These are the kinds of technologies that have far more practical uses than the deadening FOSE jargon would ever lead anyone to believe. Some, however, say that talking the talk is part of the process. Washington, D.C., is, after all, a company town. From defense contracting to Capitol Hill to the intricate federal personnel management system, Washingtonians rely on acronyms, abbreviations and varying strains of bureaucratese that were designed to streamline their jobs. In doing so, they've made the term "Inside the Beltway" a synonym for alien, unintelligible or, worse, detached from reality.

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