By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010; A01
Rep. Connie Mack hearts his iPhone. He just wishes his staff would show the love, too.
When the Florida Republican began urging his aides to dump their government-issued BlackBerrys for government-issued iPhones, they mostly ignored him. Only Mack's chief of staff heeded Apple's siren call, making him and his boss two of just 86 iPhone users at work in the House of Representatives. Other aides still cling to the familiar, part of a sea of 9,140 BlackBerry stalwarts in the House.
This disparity also holds true based on retail sales or a stroll along most any downtown block at lunchtime -- evidence that Washington's attachment to the sturdy, e-mail-focused BlackBerry has been unshakable. No matter that the flashier, more Web-friendly iPhone has reshaped the smartphone landscape, letting users trade contact information by simply bumping phones or find the nearest Chinese restaurant by taking a picture of a street.
Although no one keeps a tally of government-issued BlackBerrys, they number in the tens of thousands, as evidenced by hordes of federal employees tapping away at them on the Metro.
Even outside the Beltway, BlackBerrys still far outnumber iPhones. But the Steve Jobs creation, with its thousands of downloadable applications, overwhelmingly dominates the country's mobile Web usage. Which is why Mack and others are waging a get-with-it campaign to square the federal government with how the rest of the country consumes mobile data and ignores spouses and children at dinner.
"There are people in my office who are bucking change," acknowledged Mack, whose wife, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), is also an iPhone enthusiast. "I think I can be persuasive. I'll let them decide on their own -- or I will force them. We're slow about adopting a lot of things in this town. But I can feel the change coming."
Evolving from an e-mail-obsessed BlackBerry town to a whiz-bang app town would represent a significant shift in how the government does business.
A program that turns a phone into a document scanner would let government officials manage their work lives on the go. Instead of e-mailing back and forth with several colleagues, a group could conduct a four-way instant message chat in real time. The shift from centralized to decentralized, from action to interaction would flow to the thousands of companies across the region that do business with the federal government.
"The iPhone introduced a new paradigm, the apps paradigm, and that paradigm is everything that matters now," said tech guru Tim O'Reilly, who has been introducing apps developers to the people who run federal agencies. "But a lot of people in D.C. really love their BlackBerrys, and they have a strong relationship with them."
"Love" may be too shallow a word to describe this region's fixation with the BlackBerry, an addictive e-mail powerhouse that so far lacks the technological innards for the rich, data-heavy apps that have become so popular on other smartphones. (No, not just games in which people throw sheep at each other via their Facebook apps.)
Washington is the country's eighth-largest metro region but the fourth-biggest user of BlackBerrys according to Localytics, which tracks mobile app usage. Best Buy sells more BlackBerrys in the Washington region than it does elsewhere, said Scott Anderson, the retailer's senior director of mobile merchants.Memories of 9/11
Introduced in 1999, the BlackBerry was the first mobile device that could send secure e-mail outside the office, and law firms (there are a few around here, always hunting for more billable hours) quickly adopted the technology. The government joined in, making the BlackBerry an essential tool for communication.
"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."
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.' "