Android and the "Two Enterprises"
When it comes to any technology that can be used for work, the question of "enterprise-ready" comes to the surface sooner or later. With all of the advances in mobile phones in recent years, it often seems that this question is asked on a monthly basis. One of the more recent mobile platforms receiving enterprise scrutiny as been the Android operating system. Answering the question "is Android ready for the enterprise" may not be quite as simple as one might expect, however.
The Two Halves of The Enterprise Whole
When it comes to determining whether or not any technology is ready for the enterprise, there are two distinct audiences to consider. First, there is the user. From a user perspective, the view on "enterprise-ready" has always been "can this technology help me do what I need to do when I need to do it?" In this respect, modern smartphones almost always meet this challenge in one way or another. Accessing email, reviewing documents, performing research are among the many things an enterprise user can accomplish on a mobile phone. Of course, most enterprise workers also prefer to carry only one phone, so the phrase "all work and no play" often applies here, with users wanting to be able to manage and interact with their personal life on the device as well. It is often this latter aspect of mobile technology that comes into conflict with the second enterprise audience - the business itself and the organizations responsible for managing technology.
Enterprise IT organizations have increasingly become tasked with managing mobile phones in a fashion similar to other enterprise technologies. Of course, the emphasis for these organizations goes beyond the enterprise user requirement of getting things done; there are a number of business factors to also be considered. Questions like "can I keep track of this asset", "how safe is our corporate data" and "what can be done when something goes wrong" add to a list of requirements in determining enterprise readiness for any new technology. Some unique aspects of mobile phones make the answers to many of these questions often hard to answer.
When Business and Personal Become Blurred
For users, mobile phones are quite frankly the most "personal" of business technologies. While users are often comfortable with a work computer and a home computer, the thought of two phones is usually considered a nuisance at best, and simply not acceptable at worst. As a result, enterprise users prefer (and often demand) a single phone to do it all. For enterprise IT organizations, this concept often comes in direct opposition to the concept of distinct separation of information.
Mobile phones also bring with them challenges regarding the fundamental principles of ownership. While most corporate computing hardware is typically purchased, owned and controlled by the enterprise, the increasing trend with mobile phones is just the opposite; the user purchases and owns the phone and the plan, and is usually compensated by the company if the device is used in a business role. This "personally liable" strategy often has ramifications with regards to "who owns what" when it comes to data on a device.
What Can A Mobile Phone OS Vendor Do?
Mobile Phone OS vendors have learned that simply making the enterprise user happy is often not enough. Both RIM and Microsoft focused a great deal of energy over the years on creating an operating system that pleased enterprise IT organizations. The focus in these situations often focus on control and compliance. The ability to remotely monitor and configure a device to meet corporate standards, be it for security reasons or simple asset management, was made possible (in RIM's case, via Blackberry Enterprise Server and in Microsoft case by providing APIs for either Microsoft or third parties to provide solutions). Native applications for email and PIM functionality were also provided. While these features pleased enterprise IT, the lack of the "personal touch" in user-friendly and modern user interfaces and features often left the enterprise user less than satisfied. This changed with Apple and the iPhone.
The iPhone changed the face of the smartphone, moving the emphasis from features to user experiences. Early on, however, the iPhone provided little to enterprise IT organizations in the way of their needs. Early battles between enterprise users and IT organizations often resulted in an IT "win", especially within businesses under strict regulatory compliance (governmental or industry) and businesses where protection of intellectual property was paramount. Without the ability to monitor or control the iPhone and it's use, allowing the device to connect to even the most basic of resources (email) was often forbidden (I know of at least 2 extremely large companies that I consulted with during the early years with such bans, and second-hand stories of many more). Add to this the early "issues" with the iPhone OS for a period of time reporting to Exchange that it supported encryption when in fact it did not, there was plenty of supporting evidence for IT skepticism.
Apple has seen the need to become more "enterprise-friendly" over time, adding features to the platform (starting with the iPhone 3G) for better device management, as well as adding tools and even APIs for third party development of device management software for enterprises. In the end, even the most user-centric of mobile phone platforms has recognized the need to build for the enterprise as well as it's users.
Where Does Android Fit In The Enterprise Picture?
While being "later to the table" does have it's disadvantages, there always is the opportunity to learn from the successes and failures of predecessors. Based strictly on Android's unit sales success, the initial thought may be that Android is having success with enterprise users. While this was somewhat true, it was not without early issues.
Google's early decision to not include Exchange ActiveSync support created a "no-go" for many enterprises, both for users and IT organizations. For users, accessing corporate email, calendar and contacts was an essential work function. While third party solutions quickly came to market, they came at a rather steep additional cost. For enterprises, Exchange ActiveSync is typically synonymous with also be able to monitor and (perhaps more importantly) remote wipe a device of data if it is lost or stolen. This is often a key business security requirement. The addition of native Exchange ActiveSync support in Android 2.2 ("Froyo") does take Android a step closer to enterprise acceptance, but there is still a way to go.
The ability to be able to remotely configure device settings to meet both user and IT needs is something that all mobile phone OS vendors have acknowledged needs to be in place for many enterprises. Even Apple has stepped up to address many of these needs via a combination of tools and technologies that can either be manually deployed or be added to third party device management vendors. Froyo did add the ability to perform a remote wipe from Microsoft Exchange, as well as to add the ability to apply PIN policies (require a PIN and PIN complexity). However, these policies are often not enough. If nothing else, the ability to control such basic settings such as forcing data encryption on a device to secure data or creating application "blacklists" and "whitelists" are often needed in order to bring a phone into enterprise compliance. While some enterprise organizations may not need these features, others have zero tolerance if they do not exist.
One notable area of enterprise control with regards to Android comes in the form of OS customization. Android has taken the concept of customization to a whole new level, moving far beyond device aesthetics and into core operating system components. While these changes are not necessarily "point and click" for novice users, they are definitely not beyond their reach with a bit of research. Even if we do not include the risks of this aproach from a corporate data security perspective, there are still other issues that arise. For IT organizations, the ability to maintain consistency on hardware is essential for ensuring application stability and providing effective end user support. If two identical pieces of hardware have two entirely different versions of an OS running on them and users have problems, troubleshooting and resolution become difficult at best. Multiply this by hundreds or thousands of devices in a large organization, and the situation is simply unmanageable. For many enterprises, Android simply cannot be accepted unless a default mechanism for "locking in" an acceptable and stable operating system to a given device is provided.
Android still is lacking in the providing of native APIs for third party developers to implement the solutions to meet device management needs. Of course, the OS itself needs to provide the functionality first, but even if the OS does provide the capabilities for configuration, there must be a solution to implement it. Certainly, Google could go the route of RIM and provide their own server solution to deal with device management. However, mobile phone OS vendors seem to have realized it is better to provide the capabilities to allow others to craft this type of solution. This is especially true in an enterprise world where often more than one mobile phone OS exists, and mobile device management solutions are now created to be "platform-agnostic", allowing IT organizations to support any mobile phone. For some organizations, not being on the "supported platforms" list of such solutions puts an instant hold on the offending platform from being allowed into the enterprise.
The fact that Android may not be quite fully ready to meet enterprise requirements is obviously not a point for panic - at least not yet. Apple proved you could do quite well for quite a while by strictly appealing to a consumer-oriented market. Apple was wise enough, however, that in order to penetrate all markets, a level of business appeasement must occur. Google will soon (if not already) find itself in this same situation. Very little has been heard up to this point regarding Android 3.0, and even less in relation to the enterprise. I hope that future news of enterprise features will exist, and that they recognize and address the issues and concerns that keep Android from gaining even greater acceptance and market share. If they do not, there will be places where Android simply cannot and will not be allowed.
Don Sorcinelli is a Microsoft MVP for Mobile Devices and a consultant with 20 years of enterprise software development experience spanning a variety of technologies and platforms. He has spent much of the last decade focused on mobile technologies for both business and personal productivity. He is currently a Senior Software Engineer focused on mobile applications across mobile device platforms.
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Don SorcinelliMicrosoft MVP, Windows Mobile DevicesEditor-In-Chief, BostonPocketPC.com