Locking Apple, Microsoft out:
Electoral commissions want 6,000 Android tablets



news Apple and Microsoft might be kicking goals when it comes to corporate tablet deployments, but one group of Australian state government agencies has baldly stated they prefer neither: Instead going to market for almost 6,000 tablets specifically using Google’s Android operating system.

In a request for tender document this week, the NSW Electoral Commission noted that it was acting as a facilitator representing similar electoral commissions in Queensland and Victoria and was in the market for some 5,900 tablet computers. The NSW agency needs some 1,500 tablets, as does its Victorian counterpart, while Queensland’s electoral agency needs more — between 2,000 and 2,500.

The tablets will be used to aid each state’s electoral offices in upcoming elections — either state government elections or local government elections. Some of the tasks which they will be used for include the ability to look up the details of individuals on a computerised electoral roll and the ability to look up streets and geography (including electoral district maps).

In addition, the tablets may be used for other applications such as electronically filling in forms by the electoral officers (but not electronic voting), to display PDFs, and to play multimedia/video files stored on the devices. Victoria’s Electoral Commission may also purchase a further 400 tablets for use with an in-house developed solution to service voters with low vision, in a project dubbed ‘vVote’.

At the moment, Apple dominates Australia’s tablet market with its popular iPad units, which are rapidly making their way into corporate and public sector organisations. Microsoft has also been making recent in-roads into the corporate tablet market, with its Windows 8-based tablet models often capable of double duty as laptop replacement machines. In the consumer market, Android is a popular tablet operating system, particularly through Google’s own Nexus-branded devices. However, Android tablets are not known to have achieved any significant corporate penetration in businesses or government departments in Australia.

Despite this market share situation, in its tender documents, the NSW Electoral Commission stipulated that the tablets it was purchasing must, at the least, be running version 4.0 of Google’s Android platform specifically, alongside a number of other technical specifications such as the availability of a mini USB 2.0 connector.

The electoral commissions’ choice of Android also runs directly contrary to the relative certification status which each mobile operating system has achieved in Australia.

In April 2012, the Australian Signals Directorate (then the Defence Signals Directorate or DSD), which evaluates the security of operating systems and devices for use in Australian government agencies, approved devices running version 5 of Apple’s iOS platform (including iPads and iPhones) for classified government communications, after a lengthy evaluation period and the production of a detailed security ‘hardening’ guide for the popular mobile products.

The iOS5 successfully passed an evaluation using a stringent and intensive security assessment to ensure it met Australian Government information security requirements. The formal security evaluation, which DSD said was the first of its kind for iOS5, covers devices that are owned and managed by Australian government agencies that have implemented specific DSD security advice.
DSD has also produced an accompanying security hardening guide for iOS devices — which can be downloaded for free from its website.

In February, DSD declined to respond to a question on whether it had seen any further interest from government stakeholders in certifying the Android operating system, which is believed to have even stronger market share in Australia than Apple’s devices, but has not yet been adopted strongly for corporate use. “The Android platform has not yet been submitted for DSD evaluation,” a Defence spokesperson said in response to a question on the issue in July. “At this time, the use of the Android platform for Australian government business does not necessitate the production of a hardening guide.”

Other platforms certified by the ASD include BlackBerry’s mobile operating systems, and some versions of Windows, but not the Windows 8 and 8.1 versions used in most Windows tablets.

To me, the decision to specifically standardise on Android makes absolutely no sense here and may even breach procurement guidelines.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Android and currently prefer it as a smartphone or tablet operating system to either iOS or the different variants of Windows. However, compared with iOS, Android is not as trusted by government security forces, and this is a major issue when you consider that we’re talking about machines to be used in elections. Then, too, there are different versions of Android. Ice Cream Sandwich from Samsung is nothing like Ice Cream Sandwich from HTC. Android’s heterogeneity is one of its weaknesses when it comes to security; in comparison, security types are much more familiar with the Apple and Windows platforms out there.

I’d like to see a more open tender here from the NSW Electoral Commission, allowing other operating systems into the mix. Locking down its tendering approach to Android makes little sense in the context of a competitive market.

If the NSW EC does go ahead with its Android buy, let me advise the agency to pick Google’s Nexus line of Android tablets. They are by far the best Android tablets on the market, owing to their brilliant hardware/software combination. And, paradoxically, they’re damn cheap as well. I don’t know whether Google is set up to supply some 6,000 Nexus tablets to the state governments. But I’m sure the vendor would be interested in talking about it with them ;)

Image credit: Google


  1. Well, I don’t know their rationale but I can see the benefit. You will need custom software for each platform (iOS, Windows, Android), and developing software for one platform is expensive enough, so they’re probably looking to the future here (seriously, I believe they are still using DOS-based systems emulated in Windows computers in the AEC). iOS and Windows tablets are tightly controlled by Apple and Microsoft, so there is no great competition there. Android, on the other hand, is a pretty open market, with a great slew of options. So they can, in future, purchase from a variety of vendors (and get the best price and/or best value), without needing to develop brand new software applications and deal with different standards.

    Additionally, security concerns probably aren’t that big, because electoral rolls are publically available, as are electoral district maps (not that Clive Palmer won’t continue to have a theory or two). A lot of the work will probably be downstream from the AEC servers, not upstream, (and that’s confirmed by the uses you state in your article); and they are not eliminating and replacing the more secure and reliable paper forms and such.

    • “(not that Clive Palmer won’t continue to have a theory or two)”
      Just imagine his reaction if they followed the recommendation of the DSD after the first D stand for defense.

  2. but Chrome on iOS is still just a wrapper around Safari

    as a vendor, if you are going to impose only your own browser engine on users,
    you really need to maintain it properly

  3. Given that statistics showed that over 80% of Apple’s iDevices have been updated to iOS7, and that Apple doesn’t allow downgrading, the DSD’s analysis is likely worthless.

    Android tablets don’t have to come with the version supplied by the manufacturer, so the user can choose their version rather than it being enforced by some multinational, there’s plenty to choose from and they open up further purchases to a competitive environment rather that limiting choice.

    I think using an open platform makes enormous sense over choosing proprietary platforms that significantly limit ongoing choices in the future.

    Finally, Android reported security risks are stirred up by companies with security software to sell and while no one should be complacent about security, they are no less secure than their competition.

  4. Given that statistics showed that over 80% of Apple’s iDevices have been updated to iOS7, and that Apple doesn’t allow downgrading, the DSD’s analysis is likely worthless.

    Android tablets don’t have to come with the version supplied by the manufacturer, so the user can choose their version rather than it being enforced by some multinational, there’s plenty to choose from and they open up further purchases to a competitive environment rather that limiting choice.

    I think using an open platform makes enormous sense over choosing proprietary platforms that significantly limit ongoing choices in the future.

  5. I think the DSD aspect is pretty irrelevant in this case as those example use cases sound like they don’t involve dealing with highly sensitive information (private maybe, but not top secret which is where the DSD guide becomes useful).

    As for the procurement asking for Android tablets, I don’t think that is in breach of anything. Its likely that the decision to go with Android is backed by some sound rationale about how they hope to use them – as some of the comments above say, it might be about better control of the configuration or it might be driven by apps they intend to buy or develop.

    It would be silly to allow vendors to quote for apple devices if they had already decided they needed android. Its not always the case that procurement means going out to market with just a problem or need to be addressed – I’d even suggest that for large projects, that might be part of the reason many IT system purchases go bad. It should be a balance between asking for what you know you need, and allowing the market some space to provide options you weren’t aware of.

  6. At least one asian tiger’s government has mandated the use of Android across all government run and sponsored events (read conferences and the like). I was involved in a pre conference webinar where the hosts promoted their new app for exhibitioners – which was for Android only of course. A US gent asked about an “i” version to which the host repeated the government mandated policy. It was quite amusing at the time as questions come in a pattern of descent into reality. “But they will be providing one…” went back to “are they considering providing…” to “why aren’t they providing”. Not a lot of chatter after that..

  7. I would like to see them deployed with a locked down, purpose built ROM, this would be pretty cool, security wise and simplicity wise if handled right it could be awesome for them.

    it is weird they would discount iOS and Windows, for me there is no choice but android, but it does seem strange, especially if it is just running a web based app. It may just be price point.

  8. With the requirement that the device supports a mini USB 2.0 this automatically removes Apple from the mix as their connector fails to meet specs.

    To me without seeing the complete document it appears that they are looking for compatibility with multiple suppliers as their key driver and no other software except Android gives this at this time.

    For Microsoft their might be fears that they will do what HP did a couple of years ago and drop their tablet range when the margins get too low (or management brain fart) and they don’t want to have to redevelop applications for another software type.

    I think that this is a smart move by the project group as it removes as much risk as possible from tie ins to proprietary lock in without removing the gains that this tool purchase is after.

    Good work Project Spec team!

  9. Personally I think the government should be forced to choose Linux over Windows/OSX. If we’re paying for these systems we should own the sourcecode to them. With Windows and Mac the government has no control over the OS sourcecode, no way to know if the US has backdoors in the code (which it’s been proven they do.) And no way to stop backdoors from being used. Not to mention re-licensing fees every year when the product refreshes come from Microsoft/Apple. It’s one of the biggest scams out there.

    Yes the cost of developing new software would be large, but in 10-20 years time, the government would be rolling out all machines with 0 software cost per machine. The only costs would be hardware refresh and desktop support. South America is going to go this route in the next few years due to the NSA spying revelations. Consider that Microsoft charge approximately $300 just to join a machine to a domain, something that every other OS gives away for free! And that servers under Linux can be created/cloned immediately at no cost. Heck just look at Windows 8 and the staff re-training nightmare that is trying to get people used to the new interface. A Linux desktop would be standards-compliant and wouldn’t need to have items moved around every few years to wring a few more dollars out of customers.

    As someone who’s worked for a company that deployed Linux instead of Windows on their servers, the cost savings were massive over time.

    • Couldn’t agree more. To keep it simple, Ubuntu for desktops/laptops, Ubuntu Touch for Tablets/Phablets/Phones. Not only cost wise it’s the best alternative, but security wise with full HD encryption available, it should also be the #1 choice. Ubuntu recently started developing a new chinese ‘flavour’ of Ubuntu due to the Chinese goverment going that route. We need to keep up with the joneses here, FTTP internet and Ubuntu :)

  10. iOS is probably not the prefered as it does not allow a lot of user choice – choice of browsers and browser engines, choice of keyboard, choice of, well, anything. Cyanogenmod is a 3rd party adaption of Android that is more secure than base Android, and has recently become corporate, given the efforts out in to make it the most professional adaption of Android around, it’d be a good choice. But ultimately, if they are after security as a #1 preference, they should not go beyond Ubuntu Touch. Unlike all other mobile OS’s, Ubuntu Touch allows for full HD encryption, and, also unlike other mobile OS’s, you can dock a device running Ubuntu Touch to for example a TV, with a bluetooth keyboard/mouse, and it becomes a full Ubuntu OS, capable of so much more than a standard mobile OS. Imagine having a mobile phone that is also your laptop, all in your pocket? Should not just look at whats here now, but also at what will be in the coming months :)

      • So what you’re saying is that a goverments main reason for choosing an OS should be popularity? Wow, ok, here I was thinking security and cost would have been the major factors, how stupid of me.

        To add – Ubuntu Touch has not been officially released on devices as yet, so pointing out to it’s current usage really just embarrases yourself – it’s being utilised without official release. Thus why I stated in my post to look to the future, not the stagnant past.

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