Uncle Sam wants iPads, and maybe Androids

The U.S. Air Force is planning to buy as many as 18,000 tablet computers to serve as “electronic flight bags” that will replace the paper manuals and documents that air crews use today.

The Air Force solicitation for the devices seems to give Apple’s iPad an edge in the battle for the contract. The document specifically calls for “iPad 2 brand name or equal devices.”

The Air Force specifications drive home the point that the iPad is the model product.

For instance, the specs call for a “1GHz dual core Apple A5 custom designed, high-performance, low power system-on-a-chip,” which is exactly the specification that Apple describes on its website.

Air Force Capt. Kathleen Ferrero, a spokeswoman for the Air Mobility Command, which is the Air Force command that is seeking the tablets, said that “any devices that meet the minimum requirements in the request for proposals (RFP) will receive a fair and open competition,” she wrote in an email response to questions from Computerworld.

“Once the RFP closes, all proposals will be considered; and the right decision will be made for Air Mobility Command’s mission,” said Ferrero.

Regarding the Apple processor specification, Ferrero said the spec sheet in the RFP “defines the minimum CPU requirements as any mobile processor with a least two cores.” The command “will consider all submissions that meet the RFP’s minimum requirements,” she wrote.

The Air Force solicitation was first reported by NextGov.

The Air Force will buy a minimum of 63 to a maximum of 18,000 tablet computers, according to the solicitation.

The so-called electronic flight bags will “reduce printing costs and man hours spent issuing, changing, shipping, distributing, and re-stocking publications both on and off the aircraft,” according to one Air Force document about the program.

“Moving from a paper-based flight bag system to an electronically based system can improve efficiency and safety and save the DOD time and money,” said Ferrero.

The issue of federal agencies citing specific products in their bids can sometimes lead to litigation.

For instance, Google and a reseller, Onix Networking, sued the Department of the Interior over a solicitation that it alleged favored Microsoft. The case was dismissed after the department said it would look at alternatives.

Ray Bjorklund, chief knowledge officer at Deltek, said there could be a compelling reason why the Air Force is interested in Apple, such as security, interoperability or an existing capability.

He cited the Air Force’s purchase several years ago of some 2200 PlayStation video game consoles to build a Linux-based cluster, as an example of a brand-specific purchase.

But federal purchasing rules also require competitive pricing that comes with competition, Bjorklund said.

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