Need to Know: Google Android

In the beginning, there was Blackberry, the push email device from RIM, which set the standard for corporate mobility. And of course, Microsoft's own Windows Mobile system has long offered push email and Exchange compatibility as well. But with consumer oriented devices like Apple's wildly popular iPhone pushing their way into the boardroom, there's an opening for other smartphones, like those based on Google Android to do so as well. Here's what you need to know about Google Android.

It's a smartphone platform

Google Android is surprisingly similar to Windows Mobile on many levels, but it is features a more modern architecture and provides a native touch screen interface that is more like Apple's iPhone than Windows Mobile. (Though Windows Mobile 6.5.x does support multitouch like the iPhone.) It's based on a Linux kernel and runs managed code applications created with the Java programming language.

Unlike Windows Mobile and iPhone, Android is an open system. And Google provides Android to wireless carriers and mobile device makers for free. As a result, there are already over 30 Android-based devices worldwide, despite the fact that Android has only been on the market for less than 18 months. At this time, at least one Android handset is available from every major wireless carrier in the US, including the popular Verizon Droid, and Google's own Nexus One phone, which the online giant sells directly to users from its web site.


This variety of devices works similarly to the range of choices one sees with Windows Mobile devices, but with some important differences. First, Android phones tend to come in two basic form factors, with pure touchscreen devices and those with pullout hardware keyboards. What's missing is a Blackberry-style thumb keypad-based device, though there's nothing stopping third parties from making such a thing. On a more positive note, however, because of Android's open nature, any Android user can take advantage of software updates and new OS versions, something that is typically impossible or very difficult with Windows Mobile.

And Android has seen a number of these updates since its first release in October 2008. These updates have caused Android to mature quite rapidly, and the system is now considered to be quite compatible, functionality-wise, with iPhone, while offering low-level capabilities like multitasking that the iPhone lacks. Key updates since the initial release include system-wide copy and paste, HTML 5 support, multi-touch support, and, in version 2.x, compatibility with Microsoft Exchange. It is this latter capability, of course, that makes Android interesting in a business context.

Android in business

While a Google phone platform like Android would logically be expected to integrate nicely with Google's Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs systems, Google has also been working to add Exchange functionality to its OS as well. This work is progressing, but is not yet complete. In the most recent version of the Android OS, Google provides core Exchange sync capabilities for email, contacts, and calendaring. But Android does not yet support Microsoft's sweeping set of ActiveSync security policies--for complex password requirements, device level encryption, and so on--nor does it support remote wipe. Until these capabilities are added to Android, the system will be unacceptable for the enterprise.

That said, Android will likely see great traction with smaller businesses, and it's an excellent solution for those businesses that are based around Google's hosted services instead of Exchange. As was the case with the iPhone, you can expect Google to improve Android's Exchange functionality and make the system a more acceptable alternative to Windows Mobile or Blackberry in businesses of all sizes.

Third parties could rise to the challenge as well, including wireless carriers or device makers that wish to serve this market. But it's unclear how effective a modified Android device will be in attracting larger corporations. T-Mobile, for example, has released an Android application that helps encrypt on-device email, plugging one hole in the core OS.

Recommendations

While Android is a surprisingly strong entry so early in its lifecycle, I cannot yet recommend any Android-based smartphones to enterprises because it lacks key security features. But my expectation is that this will change rapidly, and for those smaller businesses who are looking for cool and functional smartphones, some of the newer Android designs are already quite enticing. Android is especially attractive to those businesses that have opted out of on-premise servers and have instead adopted Google-based cloud services. This, too, is a growing audience, and one that Google will likely have great success capturing for itself. This is a system to keep an eye on.

An edited version of this article appeared in the March 2010 issue of Windows IT Pro Magazine. --Paul