Ian Bell has some pretty ambitious IT plans for the Cambridgeshire Constabulary, which are something of a coup for Microsoft.
The police force’s head of ICT is in the process of replacing 1,760 BlackBerry mobile devices and a network of Windows 7 systems with an ecosystem based on Microsoft’s newly-released Windows 8.1, having at one stage rejected the operating system’s immediate predecessor.
Two years ago, at the start of Cambridgeshire’s IT transformation scheme, Bell weighed up a move to Windows 8 Phone, “but for us to be able to get all the true value like calendar, email, internet and performance management, it wasn’t doable from a security viewpoint,” he says.
The sticking point was CESG [Communications-Electronics Security Group, the security standards team within GCHQ] compliance, which at the time Bell did not believe Windows Phone 8 could handle. Not so the 8.1 upgrade, however.
“Working with Microsoft and the Windows Phone team, we started to learn what was coming along that would enable us to say ‘You know what, Windows Phone 8.1 is absolutely enterprise-ready’.”
Bell then decided to standardise all the force’s mobile and desktop systems on Windows 8.1 – a decision that effectively ruled out another contender for the mobile upgrade: BlackBerry 10.
“We had a brief look, but what I wanted was a consistent platform,” says Bell. “I have to get all my users, be they cynical or good tech users, to buy into a common robust platform. Commonality was key. The [Windows] slates and the phones work in exactly the same way, and we can build and deliver applications that are exactly the same, and slick.”
However, this quest for uniformity has not permanently closed the door on non-Windows apps, Bell says.
“Over time, there’s nothing to stop us saying: ‘There’s no reason these apps can’t work on BlackBerry, or iOS or Android too’. Our purpose is to deliver tech in a slick and cost-effective way.”
Still, for now it’s Microsoft and hardware partners all the way for Bell, and that includes collaborations with nearby Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire constabularies, with a total rollout of 7,500 Windows 8.1 devices already in full flow.
For the phone devices, Bell is keen to stress that he hasn’t “given exclusivity to Nokia”, though.
“Nokia has been most suitable to our needs for now, but we know Lenovo has acquired Motorola [Mobility] – so we’re not putting all our eggs in the Nokia basket. There’s a fair chance it could be quite a lot of them, but there’s lots of possibilities. We have some Lumia 925s out there, some 1020s and some 1520s, but they’re small-scale pilot numbers.”
Similarly, for bigger devices, Bell is trying to keep an open mind.
“So far, the bulk of our [tablet and hybrid] estate is Lenovo. We had some initial Surface Pros, but they didn’t quite meet the demand from a battery focus, so we started doing work with some of the key vendors like Lenovo and HP.”
Bell says there is “real value” in working with Lenovo and HP as they constantly refine their Windows 8.1 offerings. “They understand some of the innovation. We want partners who can help us find out about the wider world of devices, too. So we’re rolling out Lenovo Yoga 2s, and the ThinkPad 10 will be our operational slate that will go into front-line cops’ hands.”
Bell calls Microsoft Lync “the most powerful communication tool” the force has, and plans to begin offering the public access to the police’s communication network to enable instant connection to officers. He is also a fan of Windows Phone’s Notification Center, which he said will give officers on the beat faster access to potentially vital messages and alerts.
He is also excited about Microsoft’s answer the Apple’s Siri intelligent personal assistant, named Cortana after the artificial intelligence character in the Halo games.
“If we were able to get access to APIs, Cortana could be a real game changer,” he says. “So if I think of the way officers use handsets now, they have that ability to communicate with their peers, but also back into service centres to make Police National Computer requests, we see Cortana as a possibility to let them do all that handset work through an API with no other human interaction.”