Nate's Straight Talk Express: Android in the Enterprise - Part 1

Nate Allen
Columnist from Indianola, IA
Published: July 14, 2010

Office Space the Bobs

Android has built a solid reputation as a consumer oriented OS, largely leaving Research in Motion and Microsoft to slug it out for market share the enterprise.  I think this phenomenon is likely to change a bit over the next year.  First things first, a bit of background...

Many large organizations limit their “offiically supported” mobile operating systems for a few practical reasons.  First, employees who are required to have smartphones by their employer will look to the employer’s IT department for first-line tech support in the event of an questions or problems related to accessing corporate data on their mobile device. Limiting the number of operating systems or devices supported reduces the need for variation in the required knowledge-base for the employer's support staff, thereby saving time and money.  Second, many companies have a strong business interest in the protection of sensitive corporate data stored on employees’ mobile devices, and as a result have activated Microsoft Exchange Activesync security policies that mobile devices must comply with in order to establish and maintain a connection to the company’s email server to wirelessly sync email, contacts, calendar entries and tasks. 

Google’s first iteration of the Android OS did not offer native Microsoft Exchange Activesync support, leaving third party developers to add that functionality, both through third-party apps available in the Market (like Touchdown) as well as manufacturer-customized versions of Android like HTC’s Sense UI.  Android 2.0 was a big improvement with Google adding a unified inbox allowing a user to integrate corporate and personal email accounts. Unfortunately, Google did not build in any Activesync security policy support.  What does that mean? It means anyone with a vanilla Android device running Android 2.0 or 2.1 could not use the device to sync email, contacts, calendar, etc, with their employer’s Activesync security-required Microsoft Exchange server.  Now, some manufacturers with custom UI skins added support for one or more Activesync security policies. HTC’s Android 2.1 iteration of the Sense UI is one such example.

The landscape with regard to corporate security is about to change for Android as a viable option for corporate users.  First, the swift Android adoption rate is bringing it to the attention of corporate IT departments. No longer relegated to the hard-core nerd crowd, Android is the fastest growing segment of mobile operating system sales (set to surpass Windows Mobile this quarter, if it hasn’t already).  Additionally, Google’s most recent Android OS release, 2.2 (codename “Froyo”), now supports at least a few of the most commonly used Activesync security policies, like the ability for administrators to remotely implement a security pin or alphanumeric passcode, and the ability for administrators to remotely reset the device to factory defaults (commonly referred to as “remote wipe”) to secure and prevent the proliferation of sensitive corporate data.  Google has also added the ability for users to search corporate global address lists and synchronize corporate calendar events. 

While Android 2.2 has not made its way to mass distribution yet, other than for those lucky Nexus One owners and those rooted users with access to an enterprising developer’s handiwork, many Android 2.1 devices released this summer have been promoted as Android 2.2 ready via an over-the-air operating system update to arrive later this summer.  The combination of these new features with the continual evolution and improvement of the speed and polish of the Android UI, will undoubtedly make a compelling choice for those Blackberry and Windows Mobile users with upcoming renewal eligibility.

There are a few additional reasons I believe Android is poised to add corporate users in the months and years ahead, but I’ll save those for a future column.  Anyone else out there who’s been waiting for Google to add more corporate and enterprise functionality to Android, let me know in the comments.