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PlayStations & iPods: new weapons of war

While it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog that military technology often rolls out into the mainstream, The Economist has an interesting article on how things are starting to go the other way. The magazine reports that the military is starting to use off-the-shelf technology, such as PlayStation 3 video game consoles and Apple’s iPods and iPhones, rather than building its own gear.

In the case of the PS3, the U.S. military is looking to build supercomputers from clusters of the consoles, to conduct research and development on things like high-definition radar. Apple products, meanwhile, are being used in places like Afghanistan for translation and calculating bullet trajectories. According to The Economist: “An iPhone app called Bullet Flight enables snipers to calculate range and trajectory for their shots, and built-in satellite-positioning allows local weather conditions to be taken into account.”

That’s cool stuff, but it also highlights two things: how closely industry is working with the U.S. military these days, and how the military is under mounting pressure to pare costs by using commercially available stuff. Giant contractors - the likes of Boeing, Lockheed and Raytheon - have historically custom-designed most of the military’s required hardware, which typically has to meet some pretty stringent standards. Those lofty requirements, and the fact that much of this gear is produced in relatively small quantities, means that military technology often ends up being pretty expensive.

That partially explains why the military has originated so much technology. They’ve fronted the bill on all of the expensive R&D work, and once the stuff works, it can be easily spun off into the consumer world. John Hanke, the guy who led the creation of Google Earth, put it thusly when I interviewed him earlier this year:

[The military is] willing to pay millions of dollars per user to make it possible. Things have this very high value that you don’t necessarily see in the consumer space. Once the technology and the basic R&D is paid for, then companies start looking for those secondary markets where you can take the things they know how to do.

But, as The Economist article points out, those days of milk and honey are changing, at least somewhat. The military is increasingly looking to save money by repurposing commercially available technology to its own needs.

Also part of the issue, as I’ve blogged about before, is that commercial companies such as Apple and Sony design their products with the end user in mind, so they’re sleek and easy to use. Military technology often ends up being too complicated, so a little consumer know-how is often a welcome thing.

I don’t think the military will stop being a major source of technological innovation, but it’s becoming pretty obvious that the ties with industry are only getting stronger and deeper.

UPDATE: Mega-military contractor Raytheon has released an iPhone app that lets soldiers tracks allies and enemies. War? There’s an app for that.

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