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.