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Google needs to more tightly control Android for tablet success

Patrick Gray thinks that Android needs to be more tightly controlled by Google in order to achieve tablet success. Do you agree?

In my fight against the sedentary lifestyle engendered by consulting, I took up running a few years ago. I was attracted to the simplicity of the sport and the ability to run while traveling just about anywhere, with running shoes and a pair of shorts being the only real requirements. My proclivity for gadgets and data soon encroached on this seemingly simple activity, and a GPS-enabled running watch and MP3 player soon became frequent companions, along with clothing made of fancy fabrics and other accoutrements.

Recently, I picked up Motorola's MOTOACTV device, a watch-like unit that promised to integrate the functions of a GPS-enabled tracker for logging run information, as well as an MP3 player, into one unit. One of the intriguing aspects of the device is that it runs Google's Android operating system, and despite the customizations required to shoehorn Android into a watch-sized screen, it's obviously still the popular mobile OS at its core. So, what does this have to do with tablets in the enterprise? To a large extent, tablets may not be the device that finally opens enterprise doors to Android; rather, small embedded devices like my running watch may be the Trojan Horse of sorts that brings Android to the enterprise in full force.

Android, a better embedded Linux?

Embedded systems are no stranger to the enterprise and might live inside anything from the thermostat in the conference room to a complex, connected industrial controller that manages critical utility infrastructure. Linux has dominated this market for good cause: it's lightweight, networked, reliable, standards-based, and cheap -- a perfect combination that has stymied competitors.

Android pushes these benefits several notches further, adding a graphical user interface and modern mobile networking support, which are huge assets for embedded devices that might be mobile and require increased redundancy or frequent interaction with users who find menus and icons far less intimidating than command prompts or low-grade web interfaces.

Just as my running watch seamlessly synchronizes with an online service minutes after I enter the house, an embedded Android device could easily "phone home" for everything from reporting to updating its configuration. One of Android's greatest assets, and one of its critical weaknesses from a tablets perspective, is that Google essentially provides a blank slate upon which others can build compelling, integrated applications.

So, why not Android tablets?

One certainly can't blame Android for trying on the tablets front, and its latest effort -- a low-cost yet seemingly high-quality tablet in the form of the Nexus 7 -- represents a compelling offering. However, despite offering devices in all shapes, sizes, and price points, Android has yet to attract the market share of leader iPad. Google's desire to deliver a platform might be perfect for embedded devices, but it's become a hindrance for enterprise tablets.

While I find concerns about Android hardware fragmentation overblown, the company's rapid release cycle has muddied the waters on the software front, especially as it pertains to tablets. Add in Android's ability to be enhanced and modified by manufacturers, which a great strength on the embedded device front, and you have different hardware providers doing everything from superficial "skinning" of Android on their particular device to providing a unique and different OS shell, as HTC has done with their Sense layer. In the case of Amazon's successful Kindle Fire tablet, Amazon has not only deeply modified the Android OS, but also abandoned Google's app store in favor of its own offering.

Google shouldn't take an Apple-like approach to locking down hardware, software, and application distribution, but Android does need to be more tightly controlled by Google in order to achieve tablet success. A significant asset that Google has over Apple is that there are Android tablets available in every conceivable size, shape, and price point. Hardware manufacturers understandably don't want to be forced into commodity status, but at this juncture, an average user could pick up three random Android tablets and find an inconsistent interface and experience among them. This is not a recipe for a successful enterprise device.

What do you think Google needs to do on the tablet front to steal some of the market share from Apple's iPad? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

6 comments
mckinnej
mckinnej

I think Google's mistake with tablets has been allowing and even expecting the hardware manufacturer's to build quality software. That's not their thing. They should take an approach more like MS takes with OEMs and Windows. The OEMs don't make modifications to the OS, but rather make those irritating bloatware add-ons. I realize Android is Linux at heart and this sort of approach is blasphemy to OSS proponents, but until Google forces some standardization, at least in security, this will continue to be a problem and keep Android out of the enterprise.

dantrust1
dantrust1

A number of independant conversations with respected industry gurus at InfoSec and the proliferation of white papers out there confirmed my organisation's decision to ban the use of Android based devices for operation on our IT infrastructure and systems. Which is a real pain because we like our relatively cheap and easy to use Android tech. Right now we only allow un-broken Apple devices, why?, because Apple have a credible and auditable security strategy that has some resasonable protection designed in. Yes, I know, IoS also has its vulnerabilities, but compared to Android its a relative fortress. Some of that view may be perception and due to hype but that's why I and a lot of my peers out there in major corporates have taken the same decision as us and why Android is going to struggle to gain credibility in the corporate world until Google can sort out their security stance for Android. Once they have done that and convinced us that its as safe as it can be, I expect to see some serious growth of Android based devices in the corporate/enterprise arena. For the time being - Apple have the field.

mckinnej
mckinnej

My Nexus is supposed to arrive in the next couple of days. That will be my first look at Jelly Bean. I'm hoping for the best. Based on the reviews it looks like a near slam-dunk, but security is one of those things that take a while to really evaluate. At least it's a start in the right direction.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Anyone familiar with the OSS world and distributions should easily recognize that manufacturers/carriers are shipping child-fork distributions based on Android while claiming to be the original distribution. OSS is about building on the work of other's before you so those after you can build on your work. They would be more likely to recognize that vendors should be able to take Android and build on top of it but not then claim it is still Android when those changes are not being offered or accepted back into Google's source code. Canonical "differentiated" Debian; they clearly represent it as a child or separate distribution based on Debian not Canonical-Debian. Mandriva's product is based on Red Hat yet Mandriva provides there own repositories, branding and such. Amazon is probably the only company to be honest about shipping a child fork of Android when they chose not to use Google's stock Android. I'd also add that the boot/root system needs to be fixed. My device should not be bricked just because I, the owner, have root access and accepted an OS update. Here's the real fun, root access is needed to properly secure the device. You can have a pristine boot loader but overly generalized app permission groupings *or* you can have effective granular application permissions but you'll have to open up the boot loader and do the several step ritual when system updates come out. Boooo.. fix this idiocy in the Nexus device line at least. At minimum, allow savvy users to enable root access without mucking the boot loader and ability to accept system updates. (this has been sitting in my browser overnight so not to go see what tree spawned off the comment since.)

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

LBE Privacy Guard is a great first app to install on your fresh Android device but the Active Protection feature currently conflicts with something in Android 4.1.1; looks like a screen-sleep loop or reboot loop until you find a way to uninstall LBE or disable Active Protection remotely (for me, that was another fresh firmware install to regain control). 4.1.1 is looking pretty good otherwise so far but we'll have to see how it holds up over time now that the researchers can start beating on it.

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