Google recently announced a "unified" version of its mobile operating system, codenamed "Ice Cream Sandwich." You could be excused for getting simultaneously confused and hungry while reading about Google's mobile OS journey, where each iteration is named after a dessert, in alphabetical order. The prior release, Android Honeycomb, was interesting in that it was designed only for tablets, creating a bit of a split in the Android universe. Ice Cream Sandwich brings all mobile devices back into the sugar-laden fold, allowing the same OS to run on your Android phone or tablet.
Android is available to a variety of manufacturers, and even within the phone and tablet categories, there are several different form factors — from phones with 3" screens, to 5, 7, 8, and 10-inch tablets. Ice Cream Sandwich aims to run on all of them and allow developers to write one application that will work with all the potential variations in screen size and available hardware (for instance, cellular data or GPS features that might exist on a phone but not a tablet).
You may wonder why I'm obsessing over what seems like feature porn, but more than a game of inches, this represents a fundamental difference between Android and a company like Apple, where iPad and iPhone are close cousins rather than members of the same family. Android seems to be taking an approach that's worked exceptionally well in the enterprise market with PCs by providing a universal set of software than can run on a large range of devices and openly integrate with different hardware. Apple, on the other hand, limits you to one tablet and one phone form factor when you discount the various color combinations and memory sizes.
Now that tablets are reaching some level of maturity, this difference in approach is far more interesting than processor speeds or other nuances. Both Android and iOS offer a compelling "3rd screen" — but an OS that takes a page from Window's "universal compatibility" playbook could be the kick start that Android needs to set it apart. This more universal approach allows benefits, such as letting your programmers write one application for employee phones and tablets without worry about producing an "iPad-optimized" version, and it also allows you to buy hardware from vendors that are a bit more well-adjusted to enterprise sales than the team in Cupertino.
The obvious test case has already been mentioned: Microsoft Windows. Windows effectively owns the cubicle villages of the world, yet it's faltered on the tablet front — even while offering "universal compatibility" with scores of hardware and software combinations. Windows failed by trying to bring a desktop experience into a tablet, but Google may succeed since it does not have this baggage.
While recent sales estimates (6 million Android tablets to Apple's 30 million) indicate a long road ahead, tablets in the enterprise are still in their earliest stages. A wide range of devices, all powered by a single, unifying OS may be Android's ticket to success in this market. It certainly has the potential to make headway in the consumer space, just as the PC followed many home from work to a place in the family room.
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 over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.