WASHINGTON - Walking through the halls of federal buildings was a distinct change for Steven VanRoekel, who had started at Microsoft right out of college and spent three years as Bill Gates' assistant.
Federal employees had very simple cellphones and Blackberrys - if they had them at all - and many buildings weren't equipped with wireless, recalled VanRoekel, who joined the government in 2009 and became the federal chief information officer in 2011.
He's now spearheading an effort to modernize the government's technology, pushing to make more information available to citizens and allow its employees to do more work on the go.
But moving the federal government to tablets, smartphones and applications isn't as simple as signing a cellphone contract or building a 99-cent app.
VanRoekel's office last year issued dozens of pages of strategy and milestones meant to help the government shift to a more digital era. The assignments included producing a shared app development program and establishing new government-wide mobile security standards.
Many of the milestones have already come due - and the rest are supposed to be complete by next month.
"It takes a village to really move the mass that is government," VanRoekel said in an interview last week.
As the government rethinks its approach, local contractors have responded. Some companies specializing in securing smartphones for government have sprung up, while other, more-established contractors are switching gears from developing large-scale software systems to designing smaller applications.
Much of the impetus for the government to move to better mobility has come from employees. Military officials have said that soldiers, for instance, don't understand why they must use mobile devices on the battlefield that are less sophisticated than their iPhones at home.
At civilian agencies, employees have made clear to their bosses that they want to be able to do work on the go.
Federal employees are saying, "Not only do we want to play Angry Birds and get onto our Facebook accounts . . . we want to use these relatively inexpensive and powerful information tools to do our work," said Randy Siegel, who handles government sales and strategy for mobile security company Fixmo.
The holdup - and the opportunity for contractors - in many cases is in the security. Military and intelligence officials must ensure that closely guarded information is still secure, even on a mobile device.
Companies such as Sterling, Va.-based Fixmo hope to help. The company sells software originally designed by the National Security Agency that Fixmo obtained as part of a technology transfer program in 2009.
The software continuously checks mobile devices for changes, seeking to ensure that any questionable activity is quickly caught, said Siegel, who has spent more than a dozen years working on mobility for government at both Microsoft and Motorola Solutions. As part of the deal with the NSA, Fixmo provides licenses for the basic iteration of its software to the government free of charge (a more advanced version is available for a price).
Herndon, Va.-based Kaprica Security too is working with the government as it gets its mobility security product off the ground. The early-stage company, with just eight employees, has received Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funding to advance its security technology.
The idea behind the company is to turn a phone charger into a security device, said Douglas Britton, the company's chief executive and co-founder.
"It's something you've got to do every day anyway," he said of charging. "We can essentially inspect the phone without having to trust the phone."
The company is trying to develop the technology so it's affordable to individuals at about $50 to $75 - plus an additional subscription fee. Britton said Kaprica is now seeing plenty of government interest, from the Energy Department to the Pentagon.
VanRoekel said the government is on track to meet the goals of its strategy.
Still, quantifying the size of the mobile market for government can be hard to do, given that it can include anything from the actual hardware to security to cellphone service.
Herndon, Va.-based Deltek, which researches the government contracting market, analyzed the federal budget for communications funding with a mobility component and found a rising figure that reached $757 million in the fiscal 2014 federal budget request.
While it's a rough number, it suggests the government is prioritizing these kinds of improvements. The Pentagon, for instance, has requested $66 million specifically for mobility spending in the 2014 budget, said Alex Rossino, a principal research analyst at Deltek.
Tom Simmons, vice president in Citrix's U.S. public sector business, said much of what his cloud and virtualization company has done so far for the government has been pilot programs. But he foresees a much more mobile government, in which Pentagon maintenance crews use mobile devices rather than paper manuals and Census Bureau workers rely entirely on tablets and mobile devices, not pen and paper.
"The government has this sort of perception that it's slower to adopt [technology] than the private sector - and in a lot of cases not only is it true, but it's a good thing," he said. "There is a conservatism and a caution that's built in by design."