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Will iPhones edge out BlackBerrys in Washington?

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) holds a BlackBerry, still the choice of official Washington. Her husband, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), prefers his iPhone, and he can hardly wait for Washington to get with it.
Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) holds a BlackBerry, still the choice of official Washington. Her husband, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), prefers his iPhone, and he can hardly wait for Washington to get with it. (Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
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"It's like the mouse," said Naomi Baron, an American University linguist who studies mobile device communication. "It becomes a native language in how you do things, how you communicate."

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BlackBerrys were one of the few ways government officials could communicate during the hours after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001. The federal government apparently has a long memory.

To do business with the feds, BlackBerrys are not preferred; they are often required. "To my knowledge, I don't have contracts that require I get an iPhone for an employee," said Frank Smith, chief information officer for McLean consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton. "I do have contracts that stipulate BlackBerrys."

A spokeswoman for the manufacturer of BlackBerrys declined to comment on the device's market share in the region. The company, which touts its robust e-mail system for government and businesses, is scheduled to release a new operating system this summer that it hopes will attract more app developers.

But people like the Macks -- as well as app developers, telecommunications companies and even the chief technology officer of the United States -- think change is coming, due in part to President Obama's 2009 Open Government mandate, requiring government agencies to open the floodgates of data for greater "transparency, participation and collaboration."

"Washington is beginning to realize the power of mobility, not just for traditional communications but in engaging in new ways of doing business," said Aneesh Chopra, the nation's first chief technology officer.

The Department of Health and Human Services recently released health data that developers are building apps around, including a program that would alert patients through their iPhones if a drug they are taking is recalled.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which develops technology for the Defense Department, recently announced a program to develop apps for the battlefield.

The Army, which has never exactly embraced change easily, is conducting an apps development contest with iStrategyLabs, a Dupont Circle firm run by Peter Corbett, who is all of 29.

"The Open Government initiative is giving apps developers a new relationship with a different business partner, the government," Corbett said. "Instead of throwing sheep at each other on Facebook, we are building tools that keep us safe."

Some of the 53 new Army apps submitted for the contest include programs for iPhones that would prompt the devices to take pictures and gather location data if large vibrations from explosions were felt. Other applications do language translations, provide mess hall options and inventory property. Of the 53 apps submitted, 33 were built for iPhones or Androids, another smartphone brand. For BlackBerrys: two.

Changing fast

Corbett is one of the co-producers of Digital Capital Week, an event wrapping up this weekend that brought Washington's tech community together with the government. About 39 percent of the more than 4,000 attendees have iPhones, according to Corbett's data, outnumbering BlackBerrys by more than 400 devices. That says something to him: Washington is changing, and fast.

Told that there were only 86 iPhones in the House of Representatives, Corbett laughed and said: "It will be 5,000 in two years. I guarantee it."

Although few arms of the bureaucracy have access to iPhones yet, the General Services Administration, which oversees procurement for federal agencies, has an iPhone pilot program underway.

But old habits in this town are tough to break -- even with shiny devices. Connie Mack still has to overcome his staff's tepid reception to the iPhone. "I told them," he said, " 'You need to change, because eventually you're gonna be on the outside looking in.' "


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